December 11th is a big day in the history of Latin America. In addition to witnessing the birth of transcendent figures like Carlos Gardel (b. 1890) and the King of Mambo Pérez Prado (b. 1916), it was also the day Ernesto “Che” Guevara gave his infamous speech in front of the U.N. General Assembly in 1964. But for over six million Salvadorans and their relatives throughout the world, Dec. 11 will forever be remembered as a day of unspeakable horror.
On this day in 1981, members of the Salvadoran Army’s specialized Atlacatl Battalion entered into the village of El Mozote on their way to a guerrilla stronghold in the nearby region of northern Morazán. Despite the fact that the village was notorious for its neutrality in the brewing conflict between leftist guerrillas and repressive government forces, the members of the battalion — trained, incidentally, by the United States military — raped and massacred the entire population, estimated to be between 200-700 men, women, and children.
Subsequent reports of the massacre published in the New York Times and other periodicals were promptly defamed and subjected to an anti-communist smear campaign by conservative interest groups, ultimately burying the story until an independent investigation in 1992 exhumed the remains of at least 200 villagers from the site.
While the episode was by far one of the most egregious violations of human rights carried out during the Salvadoran Civil War, it wasn’t until the Chapultepec Peace Accords were signed on December 31, 1991 that 12 years, 8 months and 1 week of brutality were finally brought to an end. In 2011, the Salvadoran government ultimately took responsibility for the massacre and issued a formal apology, but to date none of the figures directly responsible for the incident have been brought to justice.
In remembrance of this most unfortunate episode in Latin American history that left 80,000 dead and the conflict’s subsequent resolution 10 years later, here’s a list of films about the Salvadoran Civil War so you can fill in what your high school history teacher never bothered to tell you.
El lugar más pequeño / The Tiniest Place
Director: Tatiana Huezo
Country: Mexico, El Salvador
This stunning feature debut from a graduate of Mexico’s world famous film school, the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica, El lugar más pequeño is a poetic reflection on the terror of civil war as experienced by every day villagers, and a testament to mankind’s ability to overcome even the most horrific traumas. In addition to winning top prize at Switzerlands Visions du Reel film festival, the documentary picked up awards at over a dozen international film festivals.
Director: Oliver Stone
Country: UK, USA
A down-and-out journalist makes a last ditch effort to save his career by diving head first into the Salvadoran Civil War and finds himself caught between competing interests, with a sexy Salvadoran girlfriend to protect. This one is by Oliver Stone, the guy who brought the world well-intentioned but politically naive films along the lines of Scarface and South of the Border. Needless to say his heart was in the right place, but the final product — starring James Woods and James Belushi — is just a little over-the-top and, well, Hollywood.
Voces Inocentes / Innocent Voices
Director: Luis Mandoki
Country: Mexico, USA
Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy’s country is ripped apart by civil war. It’s a classic story — in Latin America at least — written and directed by the original Mexican crossover success, Luis Mandoki (who was an early mentor to Alfonso Cuarón.) Once again it’s all a little over the top — about half of the shots in the trailer are of children crying in the rain — and the film was criticized for the fact that it’s primarily Mexican cast didn’t even attempt to adopt Salvadoran accents, but the film is a moving portrait of the events and kept the memory of these traumatic 12 years alive in the hearts and minds of filmgoers across the world.
Uno, la historia de un gol / One, The Story of a Goal
Directors: Carlos Moreno, Gerardo Muyshondt
Country: Colombia, El Salvador
While El Salvador was mired in civil war their national soccer team made history as the country’s only seleccion to qualify for the World Cup, ever. This documentary explores the importance of the 1982 World Cup for the Salvadoran people despite a 10-1 trouncing at the hands of Hungary in the first round, the worst defeat in World Cup history.
Directors: Nelson De Witt, John Younger
This personal documentary relates the experience of Nelson De Witt: a Boston youth adopted from a Honduran orphanage who, in 1997, learns the harrowing truth about his birth parents, both of whom were actively involved in El Salvador’s guerrilla struggle throughout the 1980s. While De Witt’s story is singular, it is also the experience of hundreds of children who were traumatically separated from their parents during the conflict, many of whom have yet to discover the truth of their past and family history.