Innocent Voices: Mandoki’s Tale of Childhood

Based on the true story of screenwriter Oscar Torress embattled childhood, Luis Mandokis Innocent Voices relates the poignant but simple tale of Chava (Carlos Padilla), an eleven-year-old boy forced to becomes the man of the house, after his father abandons the family in the middle of a civil war.

In El Salvador in the 1980s, the governments armed forces are recruiting twelve year olds, rousting them out of their classes at the local middle school. If he is lucky, Chava has just one year of innocence left, one year before hell be conscripted to fight the governments battle against the peasant rebels of the FMLN.

The film describes Chavas life as a game of survival, not only from the bullets of the escalating war, but also from the dispiriting effects of daily violence. While hustling to find work to help his single mother pay the bills, he also experiences the pangs of first love for a beautiful classmate.

When the story begins, Chava, armed only with the love of his mother (Leonor Varela) and a small radio that broadcasts a forbidden anthem of love and peace. Hes faced with the impossible choice of joining either the army or the rebels. In his race against time, Chava finds the courage to keep his spirit alive. In the process, Chavas village embodies the conflicting duality of his life, as a playground and as a battlefield.

This yarn is based on the actual experiences of Torrres, who escaped conscription in his home village of Cuscatazingo, El Salvador, and fled to the U.S. in 1986. In that turbulent context, ordinary people were caught in the crossfire between the army of a corrupt national government and the guerrilla movement known as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

I wanted to tell the story of that song and of the Los Guaraguao that made it famous, of how the song had affected my life, says Torres, who proceeded with writing about the child he had been, listening to the song while hiding from the army.

Mexican director Luis Mandoki (When a Man Loves a Woman) tells the story with honesty but in earnest from Chavas POV. He tries to show in a realistic way what life was like inside those houses. The story is at once specific in time and place, El Salvador in the 1980s, and more general and universal, since the same problem prevails in other countries, such as Liberia and Iraq. Reportedly, more than 300,000 children presently serve in armies in over 40 countries.

Torres confronts for the first time a most painful chapter of his life, one he had been blocking for years. For him, the process seems to be as much about therapy as about creative writing. Unfortunately, the movie is dull, bland, and sentimental, wearing its honorable message on its sleeves. Another director might have given the film a stronger dramatic urgency and a more vibrant treatment. As it is, Innocent Voices is innocent filmmaking in the best and worse sense of this term. Its the kind of film that would be embraced by the U.N. and other international and educational institutions, just because of its subject matter.

That said, the film has many touching moments that depict how and what children had done to find the games inside the nightmare, like doing homework while lying on their stomachs so that they would not be hit by bullets. And it conveys vividly the fear of being conscripted into the army as well as the fear of losing ones mother during childhood.

Rather than become embroiled in the conflict that had torn El Salvador apart, Torres and Mandoki choose to speak with the innocent voices of ordinary people caught in the crossfire. Their humanistic message boils down to the notion that, when a mothers child is killed, she doesnt care which political camp or ideology the bullet came from.

Torress script doesnt impose a political perspective on the characters, whose main goal is sheer survival. In this film, Children at eleven are not political; they just want to be children. Though the protagonists are poor, Innocent Voices is not about poverty; its about holding onto a piece of your childhood in a soul-crushing situation.

Mandoki had not worked in his native country, Mexico, as a filmmaker for over fifteen years. Like his previous films, GABY: UNA HISTORIA VERDADERA (1987), White Palace PALACE (1990), starring Susan Sarandon and James Spader, and the thriller Trapped (2002), with Charlize Theron and Kevin Bacon, Innocent Voices is a movie of moments. But Mandoki is not a particularly alert filmmaker, and placed against the new Mexican cinema, represented by Alejandro Gonzlez Irritus Amores Perros and Alfonso Cuarons Y Tu Mama Tambien, his owrk is pale”and lacking.

Innocent Voices is a Pan-American production, benefiting form the collaboration of Mexican producers, as well as co-producers from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. American Lawrence Bender, who has produced all of Tarantinos movies and Gus Van Sants Good Wil Hunting is also credited as producer.

Although its politically explosive subject matter recalls an entire tradition of gritty, low-budget, socially committed moviemaking, the generous production resources available through Altavista allowed Mandoki to recreate the textures and colors of a Salvadoran village in meticulous detail. The one small town depicted in the film was actually assembled from various sections of the natural scenery of Coatepec, Puente Viejo, Xico, El Aguaje, Jalcomulco, and Tepetln, towns surrounding the city of Jalapa in the state of Veracruz.

Torres says that the events depicted in the film are very close to what he had actually gone through, but that in itself doesnt make for a good or interesting movie.