When Oscar Torres saw a Venezuelan band perform the song “Casas de carton” (“cardboard houses”) in 2001, he knew that he wanted to “write something about the song” that he remembered so well from his childhood days growing up in war-torn and impoverished El Salvador. Soon after, Torres started working on a screenplay that ultimately served as the basis for the film Innocent Voices which will begin playing in 11 US cities on October 14.
The film has received critical acclaim after being released in Latin America and shown at this year’s Amnesty International Film Festival. It deserves a wide audience in the United States. Directed by the talented Mexican filmmaker Luis Mandoki, Innocent Voices tells the story of Torres’ embattled youth. The narrative is exquisitely told through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy named Chava whose character is based on Torres’ boyhood. (Chava, appropriately, is a nickname for “Salvador.”) Innocent Voices depicts the horror of war and its impact on children caught in the middle of El Salvador’s civil strife in the 1980s.
There are no “good guys” in this conflict (though it’s fair to say that the government paramilitary militias are definitely the “worse guys.”) The film shows the government’s soldiers hunting down and conscripting all 12-year-old boys in the village to serve in the military. But the bullets of the rebel-led Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) kill children just as effectively as the guns of the right-wing government’s forces. And then there are the US soldiers who train and arm the government’s military and who come across as depraved and without remorse.
Innocent Voices is Mandoki and Torres’ reminder that “No child should ever bear arms.” As Mandoki recently said in an interview, “Children were born to play.” One question that Chava poses to himself at the beginning of the film–as he is being held prisoner by government soldiers–haunts the rest of the film: “Why do they want to kill us if we haven’t done anything?”
Much of the film’s tension stems from the government’s policy of conscripting 12-year-old boys. We see the soldiers arriving at Chava’s middle school, shouting out the names of the school’s 12-year-olds and rousting them out of their classes. Chava, 11, understands that his turn is next, and that If he is lucky, he has just one year of innocence left, one year before he, too, will be conscripted to fight the government’s battle against the peasant rebels of the FMLN.