Innocent Voices (El Salvador 2004, 130 min. dir: Luis Mandoki, cast: Carlos Padilla, Leonor Varela)
Boys hide in school bathrooms while soldiers search with automatic weapons. They cry for their mothers. Their crime: they are twelve years old. Chava watches. He is eleven. The war in El Salvador started in 1980 and went on for more than a decade. It didn’t take long to exhaust the supply of recruits. The army went into the schools each year, drafting twelve-year olds.
The most devastating war films are not about the battles but the people caught in the middle. Innocent Voices is one of the best, but the least known. It should be up there with Shenandoah and Drums Along the Mohawk. But nobody ever gave this film a popularity award. El Salvador is where cleaning women come from who tape pictures of their children to their employee lockers. Nobody cares. More Americans know about Rwanda than El Salvador.
Chava, lives in a small village with his mother, sister, brother. His grandmother lives down the road. His father left for the US years before. The villagers are caught between the lines of the government army, sponsored by the US; and the guerrillas, manned by local insurgents. Chava is about to turn 12, and is living the last days of his youth before the army will snatch him. The film catches him between the playfulness of childhood with his puppy-love girlfriend; and the death, misery and destruction he sees daily all around.
The incredible performances of Chava and his mother, and the interweaving of normal childhood innocence with killing and death make this movie indelible. At one point he escapes a massacre of his friends, the guerillas, and runs for his life: only to encounter one of his former schoolmates, in the uniform of the army, manning a machine gun. Before the hour of his twelfth birthday, Chava’s mother packs him off with smugglers bound for the USA where he can join his father.
How Luis Mandoki got these performances from child actors is a mystery. I found this whole film remarkable for the authenticity, subtlety and performance. Made in Mexico, it really should be called a Mexican film, but since the story is in El Salvador, it is fitting to call it an El Salvadorian film. Probably one of the few. Who named it Innocent Voices? That’s enough to guarantee no one will see it. Why not 12-Year-Old Soldiers?
Maybe it could have attracted more than the bleeding heart audience. Turtles Can Fly, the excellent story of Kurdish children in wartime (MovieWithMe.com) is at least a curious title. The story of Innocent Voices‘ financing, title, and production is probably more complex than the movie itself. How sad we can recite the horrors of the Congo and Rwanda but remain clueless about tragedies so near.