“The men who gave you that gum are training our soldiers to kill us.”
Innocent Voices is set in the turmoil of El Salvador in 1980. The story is told through the eyes of Chava (Carlos Padilla), an 11-year-old boy who lives in a shantytown located just outside of a small village. With the exception of a mentally handicapped man, there are no adult males in the shantytown–just women and children. The mothers eek a living in various ways. Chava’s mother (Leonor Varela), for example, struggles to raise her three children by sewing and selling simple clothing. As for Chava’s father, well he disappeared years earlier, and he may or may not be in America. This leaves Chava as the ‘man of the house’–a responsibility he takes seriously.
The shantytown is located slap-bang in the middle of the conflict between the El Salvadorian army and the FMLN guerrillas. Nightly battles rage between the two sides with the shantytown caught in the middle. Machine gun fire ripping through the straw hut is a common occurrence, and the army provides an uneasy presence. Soldiers grab screaming young girls off the street (we can imagine what for) and there’s a curfew in place. Anyone found outside post-curfew is shot. Period.
Probably the most shocking aspect to the film is the El Salvadorian army’s recruitment drive. They simply occupy the school, call out names of children and haul them off. When boys turn 12, they are automatically shanghaied into the army, and incredible scenes record the poignancy of this travesty. The school is also a battleground for fights between the guerrillas and the army, so the children are literally in the middle.
There are glimpses of American advisors, and the film notes that one of those sent to train the El Salvadorian army is fresh from Vietnam. But the film doesn’t really do more than hint at America’s involvement in the debacle, and mostly it veers away from politics and instead concentrates on Chava’s story. As with most films that chose to tell a story from the child’s point of view, Innocent Voices slides into sentimentality. The film tries to show how Chava and his band of friends try for a moment or two of normal childhood, and this is usually achieved at great cost. The film also follows Chava’s romance with a little girl, and I thought these bits were overdone. Based on a true story, the film is in Spanish with subtitles and directed by Luis Mandoki.