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20 Years Later: “Maria’s Story”

July 12, 2010

Last month, I attended a 20th Anniversary screening of Maria’s Story at The Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco. Prior to the screening, I had a very abbreviated understanding of El Salvadorian politics, and the subject of the documentary, Maria Serrano.

Filmed in 1989 by two young American women, Maria’s Story reveals the daily struggles and heartbreaking memories that lay in the wake of the political unrest that ravaged her town in El Salvador.

The film chronicles the life of Maria Serrano, mother, wife and peasant organizer. It tells the story of how she came to be a guerrilla leader in the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). The filmmakers spent two months with Maria in the hills of El Salvador in the middle of the civil war.

Here are a few excerpts from the interview with the two longtime friends and directors of the film, Pamela Cohen (PC) and Monona Wali (MW).

MG: What were your audiences like 20 years ago?

MW: The audience that we were targeting was the voting American public.

MG: Emeteria and Maria, two members of the community, discussed losing their daughters in the war-it affected me greatly to hear the details of how young women were victims in violent attacks in El Salvadorian towns. What were those moments like for you as directors?

MW: With Emeteria, we had gone first in ’88, and lived in a repopulated community named Guarjila and we were going to go up and use as a base camp. We had equipment, and it turned out that there was a huge military offensive, and we were stuck in a village. Emeteria was taking care of us; she was our mother during that time. It was the day of remembering the dead. She had come to San Jose Las Flores to be a part of that, and knew us. We asked her “How do you feel about this day?”

MW: For Maria, it started in the bathing scene. And it came up spontaneously.  We just wanted to get a scene. Every time Jose (her husband and fellow FMLN member) showed up, we turned the camera on because we didn’t know when they were going to be together again.

PC: But then we asked about it, and we knew we had to sit down with her to talk about it-that was separate.  She was out of the country when Ceci was killed in ’87.  That may be why she may not have let go of Minita (her youngest daughter), whom she made her personal radio operator for the rest of the war.

MG: How did this affect your already active awareness in the U.S.?

PC: It was 6 or 8 months before we started editing…we thought, “After what we’ve been through…how can people not care?” We just felt like everyone had to know and were determined to finish it.

MG: Were there moments where you felt that there were advantages to your position as women and as directors?

PC: I don’t know that a male director would have been drawn to Maria in the same way as us. We chose to put a female face on this war, and we wanted to address the Che Guevara guerrilla image-and that’s not who was on the front lines.

Pictured from left: Pamela Cohen, Maria Serrano, Monona Wali.

MW: The commitment to the human side of the story and because we were women, we were sensitive to that. There were times that we were drawn to the bigger side of the war, the statistics the instinct to stay close to Maria and stay close to her. Came from being women and cementing the relationship with her, which was affectionate, playful, and serious. I just think that it definitely had to do with being women. I don’t know that guy would have been able to get that close.

For more information about Maria’s Story, see the website and find out about getting a copy of the DVD. If you or your organization would like to sponsor a screening, please send them a message. You can also join the Facebook page for Maria’s Story and invite friends in your area to stay posted on upcoming events.

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