Elevate Difference

Maria's Story: Twenty Years Later

Interview with Monona Wali, Pamela Cohen

Earlier this month, I saw a twentieth anniversary screening of Maria's Story: A Documentary Portrait Of Love And Survival In El Salvador's Civil War at The Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco. Before attending, I had an abbreviated understanding El Salvadorian politics, and the subject of the documentary, Maria Serrano.

Earlier this month, I saw a twentieth anniversary screening of Maria's Story: A Documentary Portrait Of Love And Survival In El Salvador's Civil War at The Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco. Before attending, I had an abbreviated understanding 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 chronicled a two-month journey for all involved. Ultimately, the film unfolds into a narrative about Maria’s role as a leader of a Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrilla camp, which was about being a mother, wife, and a community member. I recently spoke with the directors of the film, longtime friends Pamela Cohen and Monona Wali.

Were there moments during the filming of Maria's Story in which you felt that there were advantages to your position as women directors?

Pamela Cohen: I don’t know if a male director would have been drawn to Maria in the same way we were. We chose to put a female face on this war; we wanted to address the Che Guevara guerrilla image, because that’s not who was on the front lines.

Monona Wali: Because we are women, we were sensitive and committed to the human side of the story. There were times when we were drawn to the bigger side of the war, but beyond knowing 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 don’t know that a man would have been able to get that close.

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

Monona: With Emeteria, we had gone first to be with her in ’88 and lived in a repopulated community named Guarjila that we were going to 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?”

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

Pamela: 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 wouldn’t let go of Mijita (her youngest daughter) and made her a personal radio operator for the rest of the war.

How did your awareness about some of the issues raised in the film affect your work?

Pamela: It was six or eight 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.

Cross-posted at Gender Across Borders

Written by: Maria Guzman, July 29th 2010

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