Why do 700 Salvadorans leave their native country every day? This is the burning question behind documentary filmmaker Jamie Moffett’s latest project, Return to El Salvador. Narrated by Martin Sheen and endorsed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the film provides a rare glimpse into how the lives of North Americans are directly tied to those of this tiny Central American nation. I recently interviewed Moffett about the film.
Tim Høiland: Why have you chosen to tell this story?
Jamie Moffett: My introduction to this story came through my connection as a co-founder of The Simple Way community. In 1999, Salvadoran pastors came to visit us in Kensington, Philadelphia and we just kind of fell in love with each other. Through them I gained my first perspective into this Central American country.
I learned a lot more about this through Betsy Morgan, a professor of mine at Eastern University. I was in post-production on my first documentary, The Ordinary Radicals and I asked her to be an advisor for the film. At that time she was directing a one-hour documentary for PBS about the 1992 peace accords in El Salvador. Hearing about this project from her made me curious and I kept asking more and more questions. It seemed that the more questions I asked, the more disturbing and compelling the answers I’d receive. It got to the point where I felt like this story - which in a way was my story - was non-negotiable for me.
TH: One particularly poignant part of the film has to do with the mysterious disappearance and murder of Marcelo Rivera, the anti-mining activist. How does this incident relate to the broader situation in El Salvador and the region?
JM: Marcelo’s case is an example of the lack of control over corporate actions in North America and how Pacific Rim, a Canadian mining corporation, can use influence - whether they actually pulled the trigger or used their funds - to help silence him. There is no doubt that Pacific Rim is negatively influencing events in the region and in the Cabañas district of El Salvador. What I hope viewers can observe from this story is that we’re not helpless in the United States and Canada. There are actions we can take to stop these kinds of corporate actions from occurring.
I’m working with a Member of Parliament in Canada named John McKay who has presented a piece of corporate accountability legislation called Bill C-300. There are 2700 Canadian mining corporations which account for 10% of the country's gross domestic product. These corporations receive taxpayer-funded government subsidies. Some of these companies choose to misrepresent the environmental impacts of their actions in these countries. McKay and many MPs have been saying this needs to have some sort of corporate control, the intention being that if mining companies are going to continue to operate in such a poor fashion abroad, they will no longer be eligible for subsidies.
Marcelo’s story is about a corporation that exerted its will on a community. That community decided to stand up, and that corporation struck back in a way that would end in the death of Marcelo and two more anti-mining activists in Cabañas.
TH: What surprised you the most while making this film?
JM: There was one important nugget that didn’t make it into the film that really disturbed me. We went to the morgue in El Salvador and the scientists were studying DNA there from 80 bodies from four days’ time. The average rate of murders in El Salvador is 12 people per day. And at this morgue, they were all related to drugs - not drug use, but drug trafficking. So I began asking questions. Who are the victims of the drug trade? That answer was clear. Where are the drugs sent? They are sent mostly to the north, to the United States. And what would happen if the US didn’t have the appetite for illegal drugs that it currently has? The woman at the morgue answered point blank that none of these people would be in the morgue.
I’m disappointed that this didn’t make it into the film. I hope I can somehow communicate to people who use drugs in the United States that what they use to put in their arm or up their nose - they’re not just harming themselves. There is literally a trail of blood behind every hit, up from South America, through Central America, and lots of people are killed along the way. I’m sure there are folks who have absolutely no understanding of that in their worldview and I hope this can be more strongly communicated to American consumers. It really comes down to supply and demand, and this demand is literally killing thousands of people every year, but North Americans never see it.
TH: There’s a scene late in the film in which some adults and children are seen dancing in a circle. The song you chose for the soundtrack for that scene is about revolution. What are you communicating there?
JM: Big picture change in El Salvador is going to be through joy and through love. There’s one side of the story in which people are using very negative tones and straight-out oppression to try to move people in the direction they want. But there are others in El Salvador who've decided that their tools are going to be joy, peace and love, and through that, they believe revolution can occur.
To learn more about Return to El Salvador visit www.returntoelsalvador.com.
Tim Høiland blogs at www.tjhoiland.com.