Maria's Story

Camino Film Projects
Dobie Theatre
May 9-16

By Scott Bradwell
May 1991; page 10; Volume 2, No. 6
Polemicist Maria's Story

On Thursday, May 9 at 7:00 pm, Dobie Theatre will premiere a powerful new documentary film, Maria's Story, produced by Pamela Cohen and Catherine M. Ryan of Camino Film Projects. It is without doubt the best documentary film on El Salvador that I have seen.

Maria's Story achieves what I had thought all but impossible: to insinuate that strange mix of horror and hope that is El Salvador. The same extraordinary woman's voice that describes a sudden army invasion of a peasant village - "There are grenades, mortars, bombs, and you run and jump over the body that's there, even though it may be someone you know, but you jump over it or others fall on top of you" - can also speak lovingly of the future. "There's a comparison between the revolution and giving birth to a baby ... This is a moment of many emotions for us right now. Just like when you're going to have a baby, your stomach starts to hurt, but there's this incredible need to see what its little face is going to look like."

Eleven years of U.S.-directed counterinsurgency war have produced a holocaust whose full human dimension may be beyond the scope of art to communicate. Maria's Story achieves its suggestive power - and this is all one can hope for in a film dealing with state-engineered evil - by limiting its cinematographic world to a microcosm: a peasant family in Chalatenango province.

Its matriarch, Maria Serrano, was married at 15 with the expectation of a typical life as a peasant housewife like her mother - long hours grinding corn, fetching water, cooking, and laundering. Instead, she and her family have often been separated by the necessities of war. It is only through the kind of love the Serranos shower on each other in these fleeting occasions that communities in resistance can survive. Maria experiences the maiming of a young girl, the niece of a friend, as if it were the first time she had witnessed such suffering. "No," she explains, "the running, the fighting, the dying haven't hardened me. It's only made me more determined."

The revolution has been a great school for Salvadoran women like Maria. She recalls only half-jokingly that she agreed to marry Jose because he promised to put her through high school. "He knew education was the most important thing to me." She never did get to go to high school, but she finds recompense in the struggle. "Just to survive, I've learned to do many things I never imagined I could do."

It was once fashionable among anthropologists to assume that peasants were by nature conservative and powerless - that because of a purportedly narrow, local-centric world-view, they were incapable of mobilizing effectively at a national level to confront the urban-based rulers. The Salvadoran peasantry has given lie to such notions, having sustained the most prolonged revolutionary movement in Latin America against an enemy with almost infinite material resources, thanks to Washington. Maria Serrano's world doesn't end at the outskirts of her beloved home village Arcatao; she is clear that it extends to us.

The film will be showing for a week. On opening night, Gladis Sibrian, U.S. representative of the FMLN (and like Maria Serrano, a woman originally from rural Chalatenango) will speak.