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.
The soldiers patrol the streets, invade the village's church and menace the children in the village center. As the children stroll along in neatly pressed white school shirts, the soldiers hover in the background with rifles slung over their shoulders. The children could fall prey to the combatants at any moment, and the atmosphere is claustrophobic.
Other scenes reveal the painful ways in which war shortens the lives of every child unlucky enough to be caught up in it. Chava and his friends must climb onto the roofs of their homes to evade detection by soldiers who ransack the village in search of recruits. When Chava and his friends encounter an old classmate by the banks of a river who is now a soldier, they see him transformed into a trained killer who has been instructed in warfare by "gringos" who had served in Vietnam.
Torres and Mandoki have made a film that is both gripping and highly entertaining, interspersing moments of laughter and light and scenes of beauty with the inhumanity of war itself. They pit Chava's childhood, his relationship with his family and his falling in love for the first time against a backdrop of horrific violence. And we see him struggling amid the bloodshed to hold onto his innocence.
Chava flies paper fireflies at night with his friends. He pretends to be a bus driver rumbling through the streets of his village. He smears lipstick on his face to make his screaming younger brother burst into laughter as bullets fly through the family's cardboard home. And Chava sings and dances in the street while serenading his first love. These episodes of what should be a normal childhood make the plight of children in war all the more poignant. It's clear that Chava, like all children, shouldn't be caught in the middle of this or any other armed conflict.
Innocent Voices, however, is more than just the story of how Oscar Torres survived El Salvador's civil war. The movie reminds us that more than 300,000 children are serving in armies in some 40 nations and that hundreds of thousands of children have their childhoods destroyed by wars.
Torres recalled in a recent interview that prior to beginning work on his screenplay, the story of his boyhood was a "story that he always wanted to forget." But, as Torres, Mandoki, and the film's politically astute producer Lawrence Bender understand, Innocent Voices was a story that had to be told. Bender said in an interview that the film combines his passion for film with his political activism. Above all, it shows pictures that we never see on TV or in the movies--"pictures of children" and parents struggling to survive amid war.
Torres' story could be happening "anywhere in the world," Bender said. He hopes that the United Nations and UNICEF will put a spotlight on the issue of recruitment of children as soldiers and that we will be able to "shame countries" that allow children to be conscripted to fight in wars into ending this horrible practice.
Ultimately, Innocent Voices makes us understand that war exacts its most awful toll on the most vulnerable people in any society. It is an antiwar classic.
P.S. Innocent Voices could not only draw attention to the issue of child soldiers, but the film also could help force compliance with the United Nations Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. (It's a mouthful, but it's a crucial document.)
The Protocol entered into force in 2002. It outlaws the use of children under 18 in armed conflict, and it requires its signatories to raise the age of compulsory recruitment and fighting in conflicts to 18, along with other common-sense provisions. While the United States ratified the UN's principal treaty on child soldiers in December 2002, it is, incredibly, one of only two countries, along with Somalia, that has still not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. (Right-wing opponents in the US are afraid that the Convention will cause the US to promote abortion and sex education.) If you want to get active in the campaign to stop the use of child soldiers in war, click here to check out The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, make a donation to its work, and learn more about what steps the world can take to put an end to one of the horrors of our times.