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The Real Cost of Prisons Comix on Book Bag

Real Cost of Prisons

Book Bag, Daily Hampshire Gazette
April 2009

This book is a collection of three comic books, including accompanying essays, that explore the social, emotional and financial cost the United States faces by keeping approximately 2.3 million people behind bars. The book also includes comments from community organizers around the country discussing how they have used the book in their work.

This country's imprisoned population is a number that has steadily grown. From the end of World War II to 1970, according to Ahrens, there were 200,000 people in prison. Though there are more than 2 million people jailed now, the nation's crime rate, she says, has changed little.

In a recent interview with the Gazette, Ahrens noted that Massachusetts currently spends a larger portion of its budget for prisons than for higher education. "Maybe people would rather pay for higher education than for prisons. Maybe the days of pure punitive policy are not something people still want to pay for, especially now." For change to occur, she said, "It's going to take people saying they think this is a bad idea - and they're tired of paying for it."

Ahrens, who lives in Northampton, edited the volume and is a contributing writer. Other writers include Ellen Miller-Mack, also of Northampton, along with Craig Gilmore, Susan Willmarth and Kevin Pyle. Illustrations are by Kevin Pyle, Sabrina Jones and Susan Willmarth, with an introduction by Craig Gilmore and Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

Last month, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a private organization that defines its mission as working for responsive and effective criminal justice, juvenile justice and child welfare systems, named "The Real Cost of Prisons" one of nine winners in the literature category of a PASS award (Prevention for a Safer Society.) Awards were also given in the categories of film, magazine, newspaper, radio, television/video, and the Web.

The council says it grants the awards "in recognition of thoughtful and factual coverage of the issues."

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Kino-Eye.com
September 20, 2008

Maria’s Story (1990, Monona Wali & Pamela Cohen, 53 min.) is a documentary portrait of Maria Serrano, a 39-year-old woman who is a peasant, mother, and guerrilla leader who at the time the film was made, had spent over a decade of her life fighting in the hills of El Salvador. Some might condemn the film as agitprop, others would argue it provides an insightful point-of-view of the late-eighties struggle in El Salvador from a highly personal point-of-view. The film is also interesting and important because of the manner in which it was made. More on that later. The film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, had a modest theatrical release, and was broadcast by PBS on P.O.V.

I would argue the film is not propaganda due to the fact the filmmakers focused on one woman’s story through which the filmmakers explored the injustice of the situation of El Salvador. Reminds me of the old film school adage, “show don’t tell.” The film was made in conjunction with CISPES (Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) and was a very effective fundraising tool for them, definitely in part to film’s personal perspective. Viewers might disagree with Maria, her politics, her approach to the problems she faces, but they could not disagree with the reality of her life and the people around her. Not only is there no such thing as objectivity, the duplicitous “objectivity” of the mainstream media stifles real dialog, real debate, real understanding. I like my documentaries with a point-of-view from perspective of real people, and if the filmmaker has an agenda, so be it, as long as they are willing to go to bat for their facts and perspectives and the social reality they are depicting.

But I digress. This post is more about what makes this particular film interesting from the perspective of media technology history: the production of the film was made possible by the use of a new Sony Video8 camcorder that recorded high quality audio and introduced around the time the film started filming. This film was made at a watershed moment in documentary film history. The filmmakers have told the story (ref. Q&A session during a San Francisco screening of the film, circa 1991) of the first time they went down to El Salvador with their 16mm film camera, audio recording gear, and many cans of 16mm film. Maria’s response, in summary, was “with all that gear you can’t move fast, you’re going to get us killed” and the filmmakers returned to San Francisco and had to rethink how they were going to shoot the film.

Sony CCD-V200 Video 8 Camcorder with high quality audio recording

This was just around the time that Video8 (and soon after Hi8) were being discussed in documentary circles as viable alternatives to 16mm film and Betacam SP for shooting documentary films. There was lots of talk about whether PBS would accept Video8 (and later Hi8) documentaries and the video engineers and film snobs were out in full regalia for this debate. John Knoop, the cinematographer on the project, came up with a solution, using Sony’s new Video8 prosumer camcorder, a small shoulder mounted camera that had high-quality built in audio recording capabilities with real audio meters, and he fashioned some solar panel powered battery chargers for the camera batteries. The prosumer Video8 (and later Hi8) video cameras, were lighter and a tad smaller than most 16mm film cameras like the Aaton LTR popular at the time, but they required more electrical energy than their 16mm counterparts, so a methodology of charging the batteries in the jungle was critical.

With the new smaller gear and a way to charge their batteries far from the power grid, the filmmakers returned to El Salvador and this time Maria allowed them to follow her and her army of children and men as they travel through the hills to their campsites in preparation for what they hope will be their final offensive against the government. With very little resources and a small number of weapons, they are not the revolutionaries we see in movies but this film is about a social reality we often don’t see. Revolutionaries who are also mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, fighting for basic human rights. No stars or effects or steadicam or sweeping crane shots in this film. Just life as the filmmakers observe it day to day living under harsh conditions. The quality of the video image actually works in favor of this film, constantly reminding you this is a mediated experience, not a mimetic virtuality.

The film is also interesting because for the theatrical release the filmmakers had no choice but to produce a film print. This was at the time that a post firm in Los Angeles called Image Transform has perfected a video to film process that was helping filmmakers make film prints that looked good enough to entice some distributors and theaters to program films that had been shot in video. We don’t get hung up on shooting medium these days, but circa 1990 people sure did. The video vs. film as an acquisition medium debate was raging like a California wildfire.

The film is primarily a document of political struggle, but it’s also a turning point technologically because it was among the first films shot in Video8 that presented a compelling and important portrait that could not have been made with the analog photo-chemical film medium. The electronic Video8 format provided for a smaller camera, recording sound and picture in the same camera (16mm required the use of a separate Nagra 1/4″ tape recorder) which further reduced the technological overhead, making this film possible.

The use of a small video camera improves the filmmakers ability to record everyday life in a more intimate fashion. One of the more poignant scenes in the film is when Maria travels back to her home village, devastated by long years of fighting, and talks about the events that transformed her from a young girl into a guerrilla leader, and the story is all the more intense through the unvarnished video image with it’s matter-of-fact starkness, we observe how she’s become a hero to her people, inspiring her troops as they prepare to engage with the government.

There’s another scene I remember in the film when Maria, her soldiers, and the filmmakers are attacked by government troops. The filmmakers dive for cover. The camera, dropped to the ground, continues to record the skirmish, and while the picture from the camera laying on it’s side is not interesting, the soundtrack is about as real as you ca get and brings you there into the moment in a manner that post-production sound effects just can’t do, you know this soundtrack is real, it’s a part of Maria’s life. For this scene, the filmmakers take the actual audio footage of the attack and lay over it images they had shot at a different time. We’re a visual culture and we need images as a frame upon which to experience a film, even though sound carries most of the emotion. Some people complained that it was a re-creation. The documentary purists cried foul. But they did not understand the role of sound in conveying the so-called reality of the moment, and providing authenticity, but that’s a whole other discussion.

At their best, documentary films provide us with points-of-view we could not, or would not (possibly due to ideological bias), ever see on our own. They are extensions of our collective selves that allow us to share social reality with others, and the evolution of cameras from analog film, to analog video, and finally to digital video has made it possible to show so much more, to go places that we could not have gone before. Maria’s Story was made at a very important inflection point in this history, among the first films to show us a social reality we would not have been able to see here in the United States had it not been for the introduction of viable prosumer camcorder with decent image and audio quality from Sony.

I saw the film and heard the filmmakers talk seventeen years ago, so my memory might be sightly inaccurate here and there, but the gist is right. The film is currently distributed by Filmmakers Library and is available on DVD and VHS. A wonderfully effective example of intimate documentary filmmaking and making good use of new technology to produce a story that otherwise could not have been told.

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Paper Politics on ZNet

Interview with Josh MacPhee
ZNet

Can you tell ZNet, please, what Paper Politics is about? What is it trying to communicate? 

Paper Politics: Socially Engaged Printmaking Today is a collection of 200 political prints from 200 international artists.

In addition it contains writing by fifteen of the artists, whose work is in the book, about the complex and contradictory nature of printmaking by hand in a digital world of unfettered capitalism and commodification.

It is the only large and diverse survey of the contemporary political print available. Paper Politics is both a sharing and celebration of politically-engaged artwork, and the beginnings of a look under the hood, an excavation of the labor and ideas that happen beneath the surface of an image.

Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is? 

Paper Politics is the culmination of ten years of Do-It-Yourself organizing of an accompanying exhibition of prints.

Begun in 2004, the exhibition has always been a community building activity, both in terms of artists (starting with a couple dozen and quickly expanding to over 200), and audience, which has been growing with each exhibition and now the publication.

So, lots of years, organizing work, and printing has gone into it, lots of ink pushed through screens and rolled onto woodblocks.

What are your hopes for the book? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?

Art and culture are always tricky things.

While they have existed as the backbone of many social struggles throughout history, when you actually try to quantify their effects, they often slip through your hands.

I hope Paper Politics further convinces both artists/designers and political-engaged people that the space where these two worlds overlap is not a marginal one, but central to how we understand and interpret our world.

It is a space largely abandoned by the left, and is filled by advertisers and reality tv shows.

Success to me is further engagement in this space of art and politics.

The engagement might be awkward at first, we need to walk before we can run, but I believe long term consistent engagement could lead to the creation of a wider culture that encourages all of us to think deeper about our social conditions and act smarter on how to change them.

For excerpts from the book, click here


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Labor's Civil War on ZNet

Interview with Cal Winslow
ZNet

Can you tell ZNet, please, what Labor’s Civil War in California: The NUHW Healthcare Workers’ Rebellion is about? What is it trying  to communicate?

This book is about the conflict in California between SEIU and its former 150,000 member local, UHW-W, now the new union, NUHW.

It basically covers this conflict from its origins in 2007 to the Trusteeship in early 2009, but I’ve tried to give it an up-to-date tone.

It tells the story (a tragic tale really, given the state of organized labor and the conditions working people face) of SEIU’s decision to wreck UHW-W and then how it did this. And it tells about how the members and staff of UHW-W fought back. Members and volunteer organizers building a new union! It finds the roots of the conflict in SEIU’s strategies and tactics, in particular its corporate, collaborationist approach to collective bargaining and its authoritarian, top-down, organizational style.

Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content  come from? What went into making the book what it is?

It is not meant to be an academic account; it is not neutral or objective in the academic sense. I strongly support NUHW. I want them to win. It will be accessible, I hope, to NUHW members and other healthcare workers, to UNITE HERE (their conflict with SEIU is discussed) as well as to other rank and file workers, activists, etc.

It is often a first hand-account though I have tried to document events, statements,  etc., I attended most of the major events described, was in the Oakland headquarters sit-in and now know personally nearly all the NUHW leadership plus many dozens of members.

What are your hopes for the book? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?

My purpose has been quite simple – to expose SEIU’s role in this tragedy and to show how SEIU is leading us in exactly the wrong way, a way we don’t want to go.

And to support the members not just for their individual heroics but also because I believe they are headed in the way we want to go- a more democratic, more militant, more “progressive” unionism.

I hope it will be read by workers and will encourage both members and other fighters. I will be happy if it does this, encourages the members, tells their story from their point of view, and helps them to be successful.

One always wishes for more time for a project – but we wanted this out for the hundreds of representational elections coming in the spring and summer,  I will be disappointed only if it fails to be read by these workers, or is not taken seriously by them  – obviously one always wants as many readers as possible.

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The Staughton Lynd Reader on ZNet

Interview with Andrej Grubacic and Staughton Lynd
ZNet

Can you tell ZNet, please, what is The Staughton Lynd Reader about? What is it trying to communicate?

Andrej Grubacic: This is an exciting collection of what I call 'fugitive' or hard to find pieces, essential works and unpublished material from arguably the greatest living American radical. My work as editor of this collection grew out of my friendship with Staughton, as well as out of my recognition of the importance and contemporary relevance of his ideas.

Staughton Lynd:  FROM HERE TO THERE: THE STAUGHTON LYND READER is about my efforts over the past sixty-five years to figure out how to get from Here (the capitalist present) to There (the libertarian socialist future).  We have known, or should have known, since 1914 that Social Democratic parties based on the trade union movement are not going to do it.  On the other hand, what might be termed anarchist efforts -- Russia 1905, Spain 1935-1937, Hungary 1956, France 1968, Poland 1980-198l -- haven't worked either, indeed have often been drowned in blood.  And so?

Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?

Staughton Lynd:  About half of the twenty-five pieces are articles published in obscure periodicals such as Liberation that are no longer readily accessible.  The other half are hitherto unpublished talks, the conversational tone of which I have sought to leave intact.  My friend Andrej Grubacic, an anarchist from southeastern Europe,  has written an Introduction setting forth the themes that run through all the pieces.  The three talks that make up the final section, "Conclusions," were talks about William Appleman Williams, selective objection to participation in particular wars, and getting from Here to There, that I delivered in Fall 2009.     

Andrej Grubacic: Many essays in this selection will resonate, quite profoundly, with our present situation. I have included essays that speak to our condition, of what is left of the Left in the United States, a condition that is pretty dismal. While many readers already familiar with Staughton's work will be pleasantly surprised by new and "fugitive" material, younger activists will encounter debates and dilemmas that feel very familiar. Violence and nonviolence, vanguardism and direct democracy, invisible leadership and student movements, Leninist sectarianism and participatory movement.....all of these resonate with current union organizing, student occupations, radical community activism.

 

What are your hopes for the book? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?

Staughton Lynd: The present scene on the Left in the United States is a disaster.  We have the greatest economic collapse of United States capitalism in three quarters of a century (it will be recalled that Newsweek had a cover early in 2009 saying something like, "We are all socialist now," and the Nation had a series on the same theme). Further, Obama was elected President by an enormous network of youthful, grassroots volunteers. Yet there is next to no radical pressure from below on his Administration.  Say what? The Left in this country has unquestionably lost its way.  I do not have a map for it.  But I have some well-seasoned thoughts about what in the backwoods is known as "orienteering," that is, figuring out a route when you are unsure where you are.

Andrej Grubacic: What we need to do, as I wrote in the Introduction to this Reader, is to revive the tradition of the anarchist socialist movement in North America, to infuse it with new energy, new passion and new insights.

To discover libertarian socialism for the 21st Century. To rekindle dreams of “socialist commonwealth,” and to bring socialism, that “forbidden word” into a new and contemporary meaning. It is my belief that the ideas collected in this Reader present an important step in this direction. They suggest a vision of a libertarian socialism for the 21st century, organized around the idea and practice of solidarity.

 

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In and Out of Crisis on ZNet

Interview with Sam Aldo, Sam Gindin, and Leo Panitch
ZNet

Can you tell ZNet, please, what In and Out of Crisis: The Global Financial Meltdown and Left Alternatives is about and what is it trying to communicate?

This book departs from the common tendency on the left no less than on the right to judge economic and political developments through the prism of ‘states versus markets’, with each crisis marking an oscillation between one pole or the other. There are many conceptual and political traps in such a binary opposition. On the one hand, it suggests that markets can be potentially self-sufficient and that somehow states, as the underwriters of a vast administrative and physical infrastructure necessary for markets to exist at all and as guarantors of private property, can be marginalized.  On the other, it is proposed that the state can compensate for market failures and act as a neutral policy mechanism to offset private interests by governing in the public interest. This misses the point that we are talking about capitalist markets and capitalist states, and the two are deeply inter-twined in the class and power structures of global capitalism. This book especially shows how far this so in the case of the American state in relation to financial markets.

We hope to dispel some debilitating misconceptions on the left concerning the nature of capitalist crises as well as the relationship between the state, finance and production in the neoliberal era. The book traces the historical process through which, over a century punctuated by previous crises, the American state and finance developed in tandem, and came to play a new kind of imperial role at the center of global capitalism. And in light of the contradictions that were produced in this process, it also traces the development of the crisis that began in 2007 and explains the active role of the American state, both under Bush and Obama, in containing the crisis in ways that reproduced the structures of class inequality and power domestically and internationally. In addition to this, we analyze the relationship between industry and finance, especially in term of how it played itself out in the crisis in the auto sector. This brings the full class dimensions of the crisis are brought to the fore, and leads to a sober examination of the impasse of the North American labor movement and how seriously this affects the North American left.

Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book?

The interpretation offered in this book is located within the analytical framework of radical political economy, and in particular its lineages in Marx and state theory. It is partly a product of collective efforts, not least the intensive discussions we have had with our graduate students in the political science department at York University. Many of the chapters are based on pieces each of us wrote during the course of the crisis that appeared on The Bullet of the Socialist Project. The three of us found it very stimulating to work together in laying out our overall argument for this book, and clarifying our conceptualization of the neoliberal period of capitalism, our reading of the crisis, and the vision and politics behind the strategic alternatives we want to pose for the North American left.

What are your hopes for the book? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve politically?

The book was conceived at a historic moment when the ruling elites – from the financiers through the Detroit auto executives to liberal politicians – had lost credibility. Yet labor and the left remained on the defensive. Being realistic today means daring to put forward something really new on the political agenda. Rather than perpetuating dependence on markets, competition, private corporations and the values and pressures they represent, the left needs to be organizing around an independent vision. Our book argues that the alternatives needed are not 'technical’ solutions to capitalist economic crises, but political ones that challenge property rights in the name of democratic and social rights. This involves a transformation in left culture, one which can’t really begin, let alone succeed if it isn't part of the widest degree of discussion and debate about economic and political possibilities, involving mobilization within and across the gender, racial and ethnic diversities of working class communities, and developing strategies for identifying allies and building new popular, union and community capacities. We see the book as a contribution to this.

Even as they tried to stimulate the economy, states were impelled to lay off public sector workers or cut back their pay, and to demand that bailed-out companies do the same. And while blaming volatile derivatives market for causing the crisis, states promoted derivatives trading in carbon credits as a solution to the climate crisis. In the context of such readily visible irrationalities, a strong case can be made that—to really save jobs and the communities that depend on them in a way that converts production to ecologically sustainable priorities during the course of this crisis—we need to break with the logic of capitalist markets rather than use state institutions to reinforce them. However deep the crisis, however confused and demoralized are capitalist elites both inside and outside the state, and however widespread the popular outrage against them, making the case for such a broader democratization will certainly require hard and committed work by a great many activists. They will need to put their minds not only to demanding immediate reforms but how to finally make a genuine democracy that transcends the capitalist economy and state. We want to clarify that this is on the agenda as a essential precondition for building out of this crisis the new movements and parties that are needed to make such a genuine democracy a real possibility.

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PMR Reviews Becoming the Media

Becoming the Media: A Critical History of Clamor Magazine
By Sarat Collin
Political Media Review
March 5, 2010

Becoming the Media provides an in-depth analysis of the intersectional radical and left wing publication Clamor, which emerged with Independent Media Centre movement after the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle and was a staple read for do-it-yourself revolutionaries during its seven year run. In this concisely written case study, Clamor co-founder Jen Angel shares the inner workings of the award winning, nationally distributed magazine. She offers useful suggestions and analysis for media projects, the evolving publication landscape, and the importance of understanding how media functions within social movements for social movements. 

As a form of participatory movement media, Clamor created space for social activists to reflect and served to support political and cultural writers, artists, and projects. Jen Angel and Jason Kucsma started Clamor on an iMac in their spare room, envisioning a “hip, young magazine that would speak to the Progressives and radicals…and that would attract new people to social justice work and ideas.” With roots in zine culture and an openness to publish many new and diverse voices, Clamor had a fresh and vibrant outlook. It covered a wide range of interests from environmentalism and feminism to hip-hop and punk culture.

In the pamphlet, Angel analyses the challenges and successes of running the magazine, touching on issues of diversity, decision-making, community, sustainability, finance, successfully “branding” a magazine, working groups and more.

She looks at the current state of the North American independent media movement, and discusses the need for a radical restructuring that moves towards “collaboration, shared resources, and joint publishing efforts.”  While facing challenges in a capitalist driven society, the movement must make an effort to work together and examine what voids need to be filled. One such gap is mapping the movement’s history: as Angel notes, “Many organizations and movements are poor historians.” This recording can enable lessons to be learned from past successes and mistakes. Another is the need for a new widely distributed intersectional, cultural and political magazine that functions as a space to discuss strategy and reflect on the anti-capitalist and alter-globalization movement.

Another important issue addressed is the relevance of print publication, especially magazines, in the digital age. Along with referencing, sharing and archiving, Angel identifies accessibility as a significant component of print: “Until there is free wireless everywhere and everyone has a laptop, tangible objects you can take on a bus, into the woods, and on an airplane will remain relevant.” While there are exciting new possibilities to be utilized with digital communication, print is still highly relevant. As with books, magazines will continue to play an important role in disseminating information and organizing.

With careful critical analysis of the life of Clamor, this unique pamphlet exemplifies the self examination necessary for movement growth. It provides an insiders perspective on role of media within social movements and useful tips on accomplishing successful grassroots projects. Further, it brings to light the need for continued dialogue on how independent media can grow in a capitalist society: exploring which new forms of media and collaborative efforts have a role to play in the movement for social change.

Becoming the Media is part of the PM Press Pamphlet Series. A solid contribution to independent media history, it will benefit anyone interested in movement analysis or working on a grassroots media or organizational project.

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500 Years of Indigenous Resistance

Latin American Review of Books

IT MAY not be specifically about Latin America, but this short, pithy history of indigenous resistance to European colonization does encompass struggles in the region and is definitely worth adding to any bibliography that strives to do the decent thing – tell the whole story. Gord Hill has compiled an accessible little volume that paints a more nuanced picture of European settlement in the western hemisphere than the traditional narratives would have us believe and, in particular, how indigenous people have shaped that process and continue to do so. Hill points put, for example, how British colonial policy in British North America brought native Americans and settlers together in resisting the expansionist incursions of the US, and that Canadian settlement was ultimately based not on force of arms, but deception – through treaties that tricked the native peoples out of vast and abundant homelands. He explains how movements for Independence following the American revolution broke out in Latin America and built upon an indigenous tradition of resistance to European control. That resistance continues to this day, and the merit of Hill’s volume is to bring together in one source histories that are often fragmented. - GO’T

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'Maria's Story' Is Salvador's Struggle

By Kevin Thomas
L.A. Times
December 07, 1990

"Maria's Story" (Monica 4-Plex), an example of the documentary at its most illuminating and succinct, introduces us to a remarkable and engaging woman, a dynamic 39-year-old Salvadoran peasant--a wife and mother of three who has become a charismatic guerrilla leader.

Short and stocky, possessed of an inner radiance, a ready wit, a healing touch, a strong intellect and matter-of-fact common sense, Maria Serrano is a kind of ultimate earth mother, a natural poet who can compare the flowering of revolution with giving birth.

Once we've made her acquaintance, felt her impact and been given a sense of her constantly roving--and highly dangerous--daily life, filmmakers Monona Wall and Pamela Cohen follow her on a visit to her hometown, Arcatao, which becomes a journey into the past that allows us to see how a farmer's wife was transformed into an implacable rebel. As we approach the ruins of what was once an attractive mountain community of 10,000, now reduced to a 1,000, black-and-white flash cuts of archival footage reveal its systematic destruction by the military.

It was here that as a child Maria, in her hunger for education that her family could not afford, agreed to sit on the floor of the local school so that she might learn. It was here that she met and married her husband Jose, to whom she remains passionately devoted, and later was forced to hear the shrieks of the tortured from the nearby headquarters of the security forces.

Although on the move since the destruction of Arcatao in early 1979, Maria did not formally join the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) until 1987, the same year that her eldest daughter was killed in an ambush. "If you adopt the armed struggle it's because you have no other choice," she says, "when you see the possibility of saving your life you save it, and if that means picking up a gun, you pick it up."

Maria herself observes that her story is the story of the Salvadoran guerrilla movement, and in giving it shape and meaning, the filmmakers, which include the graceful cinematographer John Knoop, confront us with our country's responsibility in the ongoing ordeal of Maria and her people while taking us way beyond political rhetoric. Maria insists that the Salvadoran civil war is not a struggle between the East and West--i.e., communism vs. capitalism. Rather, it's about "not having enough to eat, not having a roof over your head and not having justice." The sobering end crawl of "Maria's Story" (Times-rated Mature) states that the United States has given the Salvadoran government $4.5 billion to try to crush the FMLN.

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'Maria's Story' Untold . . . So Far

By Howard Rosenberg
Los Angeles Times
July 28, 1989

Words from a woman named Maria:

"There are four things in life that I don't think you can understand unless you experience them: One is childbirth. The second is seeing a loved one killed in the war. The third is running through army fire to safety. The fourth is living through a helicopter landing of hundreds of government troops."

The words are from "Maria's Story," an unfinished documentary about a woman--a farmer's wife and mother of three--long active in the leftist guerrilla movement fighting the government in El Salvador.

British TV rights to "Maria's Story" have been acquired by ever-bold Channel Four. But the hour documentary faces an uncertain future because the California film makers--after shooting 68 hours of footage during two arduous months with the rebels--have been unable to raise the $107,000 they need to complete it.

"When you are there, that is the whole world," said co-director Monona Wali, 33. "But on the evening news, it's a one-minute blip. So how do you bring back the importance of what you've seen and the importance of your project to people with 20 other proposals in front of them?"

Especially if your project expresses a point of view that may be unpopular with much of mainstream America.

The sympathies of Wali and co-producer/co-director Pamela Cohen, 30, are clearly with the anti-government Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). They did interview the government's top military commander and the wife of recently elected President Alfredo Cristiani, the candidate of the rightist ARENA party. But their cards on the table:

"We make no bones about the fact that this is not a balanced program," Cohen said. "It is a story of a woman. It reflects her life, her experiences, her beliefs. It is the portrait of a person whose voice is violently censored in her own country, and whose story never makes it into U.S. media coverage."

Why this story?

"We wanted to put a human face on the war and get past the stereotype of people lurking in the hills," Cohen said.

Why this woman?

Cohen, who has been involved in four previous films about El Salvador, met Maria Serrano on a previous trip there: "She was one of our guides, and I was struck by her." Adds Wali: "She's one of those people who raises you to a different level. She has a vision what life should be, and she lives it."

Serrano is an FMLN leader and organizer who the film makers say fled to the hills and joined the rebels after angering the Salvadoran military because of her work in organizing peasants and farm workers. Her oldest daughter--a 19-year-old FLMN nurse--was raped and killed by Salvadoran troops who then mutilated her body, Maria says.

Although only 39, Maria appears much older in the pilot of "Maria's Story" that includes her emotional reunion with her husband, Jose.

After gaining access to the FMLN through "clandestine channels," the film makers spent a futile month in El Salvador in the spring of 1988 awaiting permission to join the guerrillas, only to be thwarted because of a Salvadoran military operation. They returned to El Salvador in December with cameraman John Knoop (another producer, Catherine Ryan, did not go along) and began their odyssey with Maria in the mountainous northern province of Chalatenango just as the guerrillas were gearing up for a big offensive.

"It was a real eye-opener for me," Wali said. "I had this idea that these were all going to be 18- to 20-year-old guerrillas, real combat revolutionaries. But there were 17-year-old girls and 13-year-old boys. There were 40-year-old campesinos (peasants) and people who were university-educated. The whole gamut."

Like the FLMN, the film makers traveled light: one change of clothes each, two small video-8 cameras, boxes of videotape, microphones, batteries and a solar unit to charge them. "You have to carry everything on your back and move fast in case you're shot at," Wali said.

A typical day with the rebels at the two major camps visited by the Americans began with a morning formation and singing of the FLMN anthem at 5:30 a.m., followed by half an hour of exercises and then breakfast (tortillas, beans and eggs were the staples). "Throughout the day people would be taking baths and washing their clothes on rocks," said Cohen, who speaks fluent Spanish. "Some people would just be hanging out, and a lot of what happened was not very exciting. There would be workshops on explosives, and there was a lot of shooting of guns, planning of military actions and going over strategy."

The rebels turned in very early on these short winter days, sleeping in twos (for warmth) in hammocks or on the ground.

The film crew had one close call, an evening mortar attack lasting about 90 minutes. "All of a sudden there was this huge explosion," said Wali. "Everyone got on the ground," said Cohen. "Then there was another explosion, and it was very close. You saw this bright-orange glare in the sky, and you felt it. Almost by instinctive consensus, everyone got up and went for cover."

The Americans waited out the attack behind a huge boulder. "There would be this whistling and then a pause," Wali said. "It was scary because you didn't know where it was going to land."

Amazingly, there were no casualties. Certain that they had been located by the Salvadoran military, however, the rebels abandoned camp at 4 a.m. the next day and moved on.

The Americans captured the mortar attack on film. But will a TV audience ever see it and the rest of "Maria's Story?"

"Every morning I have to get up and psych myself before I get on the phone," said Cohen about her awkwardness in having to hawk her film so that she can complete it. "It's a very hard thing. You have to pitch it differently, because some people might be interested in the Central America angle, others might be interested in the woman's angle and others might be interested in the war."

So far, no one in the United States is very much interested at all, the latest rejection coming from the "Frontline" series on PBS. "They told me they're not doing any more El Salvador pieces," Cohen said. "It's hard when you keep getting nos, but you persist because you believe in your material."

Meanwhile, Wali and Cohen have been unable to communicate with Maria since leaving El Salvador. She told them at that time that she wanted to learn English once the war is over. But no one knows when that will be.

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