Luis Mandoki: Innocent Voices

Suffer the Little Children

300,000 child soldiers are fighting around the world at any one time according to Amnesty International. This statistic is staggering but gives no insight into the trauma experienced by children caught up in war, or its lasting impact. And it is not just the kids who fight that suffer, but any child who lives surrounded by the violence, danger, and constant fear of death that war brings. Children are often its forgotten victims. The Mexican director Luis Mandoki therefore hopes that his acclaimed new film, Innocent Voices, will help us remember them.

Whilst the setting is El Salvador during the country’s 1980-92 civil war, the film-maker reveals he had a different arena in mind. “I made this film,” he explains in heavily accented English, “because it tells you what’s happening inside the lives of children inside the schools and inside the houses while the bombings in Iraq are happening, even though it takes place in El Salvador.”

Written by Oscar Torres, who based his screenplay on his own experiences, Innocent Voices is a people’s take on war seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old called Chava. Like all children, he just wants to play. However, his is a childhood marked by the murder of friends, fire fights, bombings, and the knowledge that when he turns 12, the army will try to conscript him. Torres actually avoided capture and stayed with the FMLN rebels, on and off, for six months. When he was 13, he fled to the United States and settled in LA.

Mandoki, who has a string of Hollywood films behind him starring the likes of Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Jennifer Lopez and Meg Ryan, met Torres when the Salvadoran was appearing in an AT&T commercial Mandoki was directing. “I was fed up with the kind of movies that I was doing,” he recalls, “so when this script came I read it, and it was like a wash over. There was no doubt that was my next movie.” He did not know then how much of a roller coaster journey he and Torres were embarking on.

As they worked on the screenplay, it became clear that Torres’ psychological and emotional wounds were far from healed. He had initially wanted to tell the story of the music that inspired him during the war, but Mandoki was more interested in the story of Chava. When he pushed Torres to put more of his life into the piece, the writer’s unresolved feelings about the past made him resist.

“War doesn’t end when it ends,” Mandoki reflects. “It changes people and war survivors carry that war for the rest of their lives. Oscar didn’t know if leaving was the right thing, because he abandoned his family; because he abandoned people that stayed to fight. So there was this guilt.”

The process was forcing Torres to confront thoughts and emotions he had repressed. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Chava picks up a gun and points it at a child soldier. But instead of shooting he drops the weapon and runs away. When Mandoki asked him if he had ever pulled a trigger, Torres brushed the question aside. The director persisted but got nowhere. “I grabbed a chair and launched it against a wall and said, ‘Fine, if you don’t want to go the full way, fuck you.’ And I left the room and got in my car.” Mandoki returned an hour later to find Torres sobbing. He asked him again why he would not talk about not firing when it was such a heroic act.

“Oscar said, ‘I feel really bad about it because I almost killed another boy, and that’s something that’s always haunted me.’ I said yeah, but you didn’t. And then his face changed again and he said, ‘But I should’ve, because that kid killed my friends and other people. I also feel like a piece of shit because I left.’ He couldn’t stop crying, he was very emotional, and then I realised why he’d resisted, because once you go in there, all this stuff comes out. So we spent hours just talking about it.”

Incredibly, Torres’s original screenplay did not include the round-ups of boys by the army. It was only when Mandoki asked him why children were hiding on roof tops that he told him it was to avoid capture. He had not thought it was important. “For him that was every day life,” says Mandoki, “and as we started talking about that, I was surprised. I didn’t know about it. I started researching it, through UNICEF and Amnesty, finding out that that problem was real then, but it’s also real today."

The film damningly implicates America in the training of child soldiers in El Salvador, and both writer and director believe that this partly explains why the film – Mexico’s entry for the 77th Oscars - received little support in the US, despite a strong reaction when it was screened at the United Nations.

“Children were born to play, not carry guns. And I think we need to become aware that all the children of the world are our children,” says Mandoki passionately, “and that we need to stop the craziness, and the crazy world that we’re creating for them.”

Clearly for both him and Torres, working on Innocent Voices has been a life altering experience. Mandoki was effectively counsellor and collaborator, but says the movie was just as therapeutic for him. “You realise how tough life can be. We have it easy and sometimes we take it for granted. Touching on a story like that changes you.”

Mandoki laughs that his agent is now frustrated because he has been turning down projects that he would have done in the past. He was due to direct an adaptation of The Winged Boy, for example, but dropped out to film the left-wing candidate Lopez Obrador during his campaign for the Mexican presidency. When Felipe Calderon won the July 2, 2006, election by a whisker, Mandoki produced footage of alleged vote rigging.

The director now believes that the questions he was driven to ask himself about his life and work making Innocent Voices led him to the documentary. “Now it’s hard to find something that means something,” he says. “So the dilemma is now in terms of which way to go. What I do know is that something has to hit me. It’s like you found your own power in terms of what you can do and how you can give something, and you’re not willing to settle for less.”

Originally published in The Big Issue

© Stephen Applebaum, 2007

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