While our nation’s ongoing war in Iraq is still a hotly contested issue, for many of us it remains just that, one issue among many in an overheated climate of endless rhetoric and polarizing debate on 24-hour news outlets. It is another abstraction on the crowded American landscape of ideas, desires and beliefs. People like Cindy Sheehen don’t have that same luxury however. After her serviceman son was killed in Iraq, Sheehen became an advocate for peace and gained national attention for staging a “peace camp” in Crawford, Texas at which she held vigil and demanded President Bush give her an explanation of the “noble cause” her son had died for while he vacationed for five weeks at his ranch. Her protest wasn’t about any larger policy analysis; she has only insisted that she has a right, as a mother, to speak to President Bush about her loss. For a mother, there is no bigger picture: her son is dead and she wants to know why. Sheehen’s actions puncture our abstractions by reminding us that the reality of war is not simply death to men, women and children but to mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters and sons.
Innocent Voices, a new film by Mexican director Luis Mandoki, tells a similar story of mothers fighting war for the sake of their children. The film is the story of co-screenwriter Oscar Torres’ childhood in 1980’s El Salvador, when rebels and government agents fought so bitterly that they drafted 12-year-olds as soldiers. Both Mandoki and Torres’ commitment to gritty, real-life stories that resist easy resolutions is representative of the highly regarded “New Mexican Cinema” that includes Amores Perros (Love’s a Bitch) by Alejandro González Iñárritu and Y tu Mamá También (And Your Mother Too) by Alfonso Cuarón.
Carlos Padilla plays Chava, an 11-year-old boy whose friends are either getting shot at by soldiers or being drafted into the army to become soldiers themselves. In an early scene, a dozen army guards march into Chava’s school, forcing all the boys and girls against the wall of the gymnasium and calling out the names of their new “recruits”—some of whom proceed to soil themselves in fear. As these children are forced into a truck and driven into the bush, we know Chava’s seemingly inevitable fate.
His mother Kella knows his fate too, and she does everything she can to keep him and her two other children alive. When gunfire rips through her home’s tin walls, forcing her children to hide under the bed, Kella quits her job and takes up sewing dresses at home. When the gunfire just keeps getting worse, she moves her entire family to her own mother’s home, who promises to take care of them.
Chava finds enough safety for a few coming-of-age moments: he falls in love with a girl in his class, he gets a job working for a bus driver, and he takes care of his older sister and younger brother after his father abandons them. Kella is not the only hero either: a priest refuses to let soldiers abuse his parishioners and Chava’s uncle in the resistance says he’ll come back for him before the draft. Kella, however, doesn’t want her son fighting for anyone.
A Fact on the Ground
Unlike Cry Freedom, Gandhi, or Romero, Innocent Voices is neither a film about people with world-changing agendas nor is it a variation on David and Goliath like Erin Brockovitch or North Country. There is no military or political progress in the film, instead, the war resembles a permanent condition, an unrelenting fact on the ground both at the beginning of the movie and the end, but then so is Kella, and so is her son. Innocent Voices is ultimately a love letter and a thank-you note of sorts from Torres to his mother for keeping him alive.
Near the film’s end, Chava sits by himself in a burned-out building, trembling from the horrors he has witnessed and convinced he will die alone. His terror is matched by Kella’s utter desperation and her refusal to stop walking down the dirt road, undeterred by burnt buildings and flying bullets. We know she’ll find Chava. She has to. He’s her son.