Maria’s Story Untold . . . So Far

Maria’s Story: A Documentary Portrait of Love and Survival in El Salvador’s Civil War

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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