Buried underground but present in the collective memory, the secrets of the brutal Guatemalan Civil War remained unspoken until a group of brave men and woman, many of whom were also searching for or mourning a loved one, took it upon themselves to begin the grueling quest for truth. Inspired by the trial that resulted from the testimony of a survivor, director Ryan Suffern set out to reconstruct the story of the Dos Erres massacre, (one of the most notorious operations during the conflict), by contrasting the accounts of those directly affected in the mystery-like narrative of his film Finding Oscar.

On December 6, 1982, following an incident in which the guerrillas had killed 21 soldiers, the US-backed government of Efraín Ríos Montt sent a special forces unit, known as the Kaibiles, to murder the entire population of the Dos Erres village, claiming they were guerrilla supporters. The viciousness with which children and women met their death set this incident apart in a horrifying manner. Unexpectedly, two young boys, likely because of their lighter skin and colored eyes, were taken by two of the perpetrators and adopted as their own. One of them, Oscar Ramirez, would become the key piece to bring visibility to the case and, at the very least, partial justice.

Suffern imbues the documentary with tension by visiting pivotal locations in Dos Erres, such as the well where most of the bodies were found, and scoring these images with interviews with two of the Kaibales who witnessed and participated in the massacre. Among these are Aura Elena Farfán, who founded FAMDEGUA, an organization dedicated to finding the remains of the deceased in order to keep their memory alive; prosecutor Sara Romero, who pursued the case relentlessly for years, and even the boys, now men, themselves. An added badge of honor for the film is that Steven Spielberg got on board as Executive Producer.

Although the events observed in Finding Oscar are undeniably unspeakable, they were not the exception but the norm across Central America during the 80s and 90s, as El Salvador, Nicaragua, and, of course, Guatemala, endured devastating civil wars often worsened by the United States’ intervention. To provide a wider perspective of these conflicts, we created a list of films by country that can serve as cinematic timeline of the events. You might notice that most of the movies were made by filmmakers from other countries, which reflects the fact that these recent wars hindered the development of a significant film industry in the region, until very recently with Central American films now a regular part of film festival programs.

Finding Oscar opens in New York theaters on April 14 and in Los Angeles on April 21, followed by additional cities.

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Voces Inocentes

Director Luis Mandoki
Production Year 2004
Synopsis

Based on a true story, this moving film follows a young boy who must choose between enlisting in the Salvadoran army and joining a band of guerrillas. Set during the civil war of the 80s, it’s a peek into the lasting legacy that U.S. intervention has had in Central America.

Vanessa Erazo

Film Details
Innocent Voices
Director Luis Mandoki
Country Mexico United States
Genre Drama
Writer Luis Mandoki Oscar Orlando Torres
Producer Lawrence Bender Luis Mandoki Alejandro Soberón Kuri
Production Year 2004
Running Time 110 minutes

El cuarto de los huesos

Country El Salvador
Production Year 2015
Synopsis

From the Institute of Legal Medicine, El cuarto de los huesos (The Room of Bones) follows several mothers from El Salvador who search for the remains of their children, who disappeared amidst violence in their country. The film is a look at the 20 or more bodies that are received at the morgue on a monthly basis and remain unclaimed – the story of DNA with no name, of bodies that became cadavers for belonging to a rival gang.


Film Details
The Room of Bones
Director Marcela Zamora
Country El Salvador
Genre Documentary
Writer Marcela Zamora
Producer Anaïs Vignal
Production Year 2015
Running Time 52 minutes

Uno: la historia de un gol

Country El Salvador
Production Year 2010
Synopsis

In the early 1980s, as El Salvador was in the midst of its brutal civil war, a group of Salvadoran futbol players emerged to unite their entire nation with their game. Achieving an unforgettable qualification to the 1982 World Cup in Spain, they would try to score El Salvador’s first World Cup victory. With a homeland ripped apart by guns and guerrillas, their team’s selection provided hope for all Salvadorans. This insightful and honest film recounts a David-and-Goliath story of great hope and terrible disappointment.

Gary Terracino

Film Details
One, the Story of a Goal
Director Gerardo Muyshondt Carlos Moreno
Country El Salvador
Production Year 2010

El Salvador: Another Vietnam

Production Year 1981
Synopsis

Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, this concise work compares the US involvement in El Salvador to the actions that led to the Vietnam War. By lending American military advisors to the dictatorship in power in order to persecute those labeled as communist, unspeakable crimes were justified. The film also touches on other factors that influenced El Salvador’s troubled history during most of the 20th century.

Carlos Aguilar

Film Details

Director Glenn Silber Teté Vasconcellos
Country United States
Writer Claudia Vianello
Producer Glenn Silber Teté Vasconcellos Claudia Vianello
Production Year 1981
Running Time 53 minutes

El lugar más pequeño

Director Tatiana Huezo
Country Mexico
Production Year 2011
Synopsis

Highlighting the resilience of the human spirit, El Salvador-born filmmaker, Tatiana Huezo, explores the aftermath of the devastating civil war in the Central American country through the experiences of five families that returned to their village, Cinquera, over a decade after its destruction. Their testimonies are simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting. Despite the tragedy, the survivors choose to rebuild and move forward, while never forgetting those who died in the conflict. Memory is their most powerful weapon for a peaceful future.

Carlos Aguilar

Film Details
The Tiniest Place
Director Tatiana Huezo
Country Mexico
Genre Documentary
Writer Tatiana Huezo
Producer Nicolás Celis
Production Year 2011
Running Time 104 minutes

Romero

Director John Duigan
Production Year 1982
Synopsis

At a time when human rights violations were rampant in El Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was advised by the Vatican not to get involved in the country’s political situation. However, because of his close friendship with Father Grande, a man who believed in social justice, Romero slowly begins to leave his conservative stance and speaks out against the violence and oppression that had become commonplace. Hostility towards Romero and other priests escalates as the government attempts to silence him. Fearless, Romero doesn’t back down and fights until his last breathe.

Carlos Aguilar

Film Details

Director John Duigan
Country United States
Genre Biopic Drama
Writer John Sacret Young
Producer Ellwood Kieser
Production Year 1982
Running Time 102 minutes

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Finding Oscar

Director Ryan Suffern
Production Year 2016
Synopsis

In 1982, an elite Guatemalan government squad massacred over 200 residents of the rural village of Dos Erres. The number merely added to the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives, or were disappeared during the country’s 36-year-long civil war. As it turns out, two young boys survived the massacre. More improbably, their story and survival was the only key to finding out precisely what happened back in 1982. Produced by Steven Spielberg and Frank Marshall, Finding Oscar traces the story of finding one of the boys and the quest for justice that followed.

Manuel Betancourt

Film Details

Director Ryan Suffern
Country Guatemala United States
Genre Documentary
Writer Ryan Suffern Mark Monroe
Producer Frank Marshall Ryan Suffern
Production Year 2016
Running Time 95 minutes

Granito

Director Pamela Yates
Production Year 2011
Synopsis

Focusing on how the armed conflict that unfolded in Guatemala in the 1980s affected the country’s indigenous population, this documentary aims to revisit the memories of the genocide perpetrated under the “scorched earth” military campaigns in order to seek justice. Five central characters provide diverse perspectives into the events that resulted in the deaths of 200,000 Maya people, including 45,000 disappeared, and that indelibly marked their homeland’s past, present, and future.  

Carlos Aguilar

Film Details

Director Pamela Yates
Country Guatemala Spain United States
Genre Documentary
Producer Paco de Onis
Production Year 2011
Running Time 103 minutes

When the Mountains Tremble

Production Year 1983
Synopsis

Centered on indigenous leader and Nobel Peace Laureate, Rigoberta Menchú, one of the most iconic and influential figures in recent Latin American history, the filmmaking duo use an amalgamation of distinct visual materials to chronicle the struggles of Guatemala’s indigenous population against their own government’s oppressive policies. Menchú emerged as a voice for social revolution during wartime, which makes her contributions to her people’s fight all the more remarkable, as the engaging doc depicts.

Carlos Aguilar

Film Details

Director Newton Thomas Sigel Pamela Yates
Country Guatemala United States
Genre Documentary
Producer Peter Kinoy
Production Year 1983
Running Time 83 minutes

Guatemala: The Secret Files

Production Year 2008
Synopsis

This segment from PBS’ renowned series Frontline World takes reporter Clark Boyd to Guatemala, where he meets key figures in the revitalized investigation and historical analysis of the mass killings that took place during the country’s bloody civil war. Guatemalan activists join forces with American organizations that provide the technology required to safeguard the memories of the deceased and disappeared.

Carlos Aguilar

Film Details

Country United States
Production Year 2008
Running Time 15 minutes

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Alsino y el cóndor

Production Year 1982
Synopsis

Chilean director Miguel Littín tackles civil war in Nicaragua through the eyes of a young boy, Alsino, whose village is transformed into a staging area by American troops forcefully throwing him into the conflict. His innocence is shattered and his playful dreams forgotten. Eventually, Alsino’s interactions with the army awaken in him sympathies towards the rebel groups. The film earned Nicaragua, and Central America in general, its only Oscar-nomination to date in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Carlos Aguilar

Film Details
Alsino and the Condor
Director Miguel Littín
Country Nicaragua Costa Rica Cuba Mexico
Genre Drama
Writer Miguel Littín Isidora Aguirre Pedro Prado Tomás Pérez Turrent
Producer Hernán Littín
Production Year 1982
Running Time 89 minutes

Princesas rojas

Director Laura Astorga
Production Year 2013
Synopsis

Forced to leave their lives in Nicaragua and resettled in Costa Rica, two young girls, Claudia and Antonia, must adapt to their new environment in a country mostly unaffected by the turmoil in the region during the 1980s. As the daughters of two Sandinista activists on the run, the sisters experience abandonment, betrayal, and a double life driven by secrecy. Meanwhile, their parents are confronted with their loyalty to the movement they once believed in and their uncertain future.

Carlos Aguilar

Film Details
Red Princesses
Director Laura Astorga
Country Venezuela Costa Rica
Genre Drama
Writer Laura Astorga
Producer Marcela Esquivel Aldrina Valenzuela
Production Year 2013
Running Time 102 minutes

Carla’s Song

Director Ken Loach
Production Year 1997
Synopsis

Scottish bus driver, George Lennox, meets a young Nicaraguan woman, Carla, who left her home country for Glasgow to escape the war. A romance rapidly develops between the two. Uncertain about her loved ones’ whereabouts and deeply depressed, Carla decides to return to Nicaragua, alongside George, in spite of the precarious situation as the Contra insurgency fights the Sandinistas. While searching for her family and the boyfriend she left behind, Carla and George are faced with unexpected circumstances that will test their relationship.ca

Carlos Aguilar

Film Details

Director Ken Loach
Country United Kingdom Germany Spain
Genre Drama
Writer Paul Laverty
Producer Sally Hibbin Ulrich Felsberg Gerardo Herrero
Production Year 1997
Running Time 127 minutes

Palabras mágicas (para romper un encantamiento)

Country Guatemala, Mexico
Production Year 2012
Synopsis

Profoundly personal and visually evocative, this blend between the filmmaker’s memories and the Sandinistas failed promises for a brighter future in her native Nicaragua is a unique cinematic poem – at once historically insightful and fully idiosyncratic. Period footage and images of Lake Managua, which it’s used as a symbol of the country’s decay, are juxtaposed in this powerful vision.

Carlos Aguilar

Film Details
Magic Words (Breaking a Spell)
Director Mercedes Moncada Rodríguez
Country Guatemala Mexico
Genre Documentary
Writer Mercedes Moncada Rodríguez
Producer Mercedes Moncada Rodríguez
Production Year 2012
Running Time 82 minutes

Latino

Production Year 1985
Synopsis

Mexican-American Vietnam veteran, Eddie Guerrero, travels to Nicaragua to help train US-backed Contra rebels as they battle the Sandinista government. At the same time, local farmers are affected the Contra’s attacks, which are planned near the country’s border with Honduras. Eddie falls for a local woman, Marlena, who works to unite the farmers. With the war intensifying, Eddie’s involvement with the Contra insurgency clashes with his personal desires in irreparable ways. The film premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival.

Carlos Aguilar

Film Details

Director Haskell Wexler
Country United States
Genre Drama
Writer Haskell Wexler
Producer Benjamin Berg
Production Year 1985
Running Time 105 minutes

Ballad of the Little Soldier

Country Germany
Production Year 1984
Synopsis

German auteur Werner Herzog captures the heartbreaking stories of young children turned soldiers in 1980s Nicaragua. In order to defeat the Sandinistas, a group of the Miskito indigenous people used child soldiers in their fight.

Carlos Aguilar

Film Details

Director Denis Reichle Werner Herzog
Country Germany
Genre Documentary
Writer Denis Reichle Werner Herzog
Producer Denis Reichle Werner Herzog
Production Year 1984
Running Time 46 minutes