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Most Americans pay little attention to relatively tiny El Salvador, but the film Return To El Salvador posits the fate of that Central American nation is directly tied to the actions of ours. Through a fierce examination of recent Salvadorean history, director Jamie Moffett explores international politics and ponders the profound human impact of America’s foreign policy. The film tackles more than a few issues, and Arts Desk took a moment to chat with Moffett about them before its screening tonight at GALA Hispanic Theatre.
What inspired you to do this film?
I was finishing my first feature film, Ordinary Radicals, which followed on faith and politics during the 2008 election. One of my advisers on that film, professor and Emmy-winning director Betsy Morgan, kept using her time directing a documentary about El Salvador as a reference point. It intrigued me, so I kept asking questions. The more questions I asked, the more less-than-great answers I got. I found myself, as an American, really unaware of what my country had been doing on my behalf for decades. I feel there are more people like me that would be disturbed by this but would want to know what they could do about it.
When did you visit El Salvador?
There were two visits for the film. Our first visit was on March 15, 2009 ,when the candidate Mauricio Funes won. The second was in July of 2009, which was when we did most of our principal photography.
Is there a particular reason for examining El Salvador more than another country?
The more I learned, the more it seemed El Salvador was a needlepoint-specific example of how the U.S. interacts with its neighbors. It was also a good example of how often we create our own problems. The fact is that there are 2.5 million Salvadoreans in the U.S. today, which is nearly one percent of the population; the reason that they’re here is largely because of our guns and our money. We often talk about those people taking our jobs in our country, but we destabilized a nation; we funded and provided the guns which killed 75 thousand people and displaced 2.5 million of them, many of which are with us. The story is that we’re a big country and we were, according to the government at the time, fighting communism, but what we did is destabilized a country even further and forced folks to have to leave their Central American country—-creating one of the largest diasporas in the Americas.
What would you define as the film’s thesis?
For an American audience, one of the things to consider is that it’s not about some poor country that you’ll never visit, this is about us. There are these people here in our country. These people are picking our tomatoes and washing our clothes. They’re part of the American melting pot, or as John F. Kennedy put it, part of a nation of immigrants. We need to be aware of how they got here and how we can work together.
The film documents the recent election, which, as discussed in the film, was very exciting for a lot of people there. How has the new administration fared so far?
It’s still bad there. One of the big difficulties in El Salvador is that you’re looking at a country where the funds were fleeced before the administration got there, back when the economy tanked. There’s actually not very much drug use in El Salvador, it’s all trafficked into the US. The average 12 deaths a day currently happening in El Salvador are from that trafficking, and those drugs are coming to us. According to Paul Krugman of the New York Times, it appears that we’re headed toward a global depression, not just a recession any longer. I can only imagine the struggle of any Central American country at this point in time.
Where did you, as an independent filmmaker, get the funding for this film?
I had to sell my home to complete the story. I had to lay off the staff, max out my credit cards, and then borrow money from friends. The story is that important to me. I know people are wondering, “Why would a white guy from Jersey care so much about this little country?” As I researched my own ancestors’ immigration history, I learned that here, as an American culture, we don’t do a great job of welcoming immigrants. That was a problem for my mostly Irish family in the 1840s. In the Kensington neighborhood [of Philadelphia], where I’m presently located, there was an Irish Catholic church burned to the ground because it was a church for Irish immigrants. In the same way, I feel like we do a poor job welcoming new folks even though we are a nation of immigrants.
In light of those issues, what can be done?
I pretty strongly believe that a federal revision of immigration reform is important. I’m excited to see what this administration puts forward. I do believe as a country we should be aware of who comes in our borders, and illegal immigration certainly isn’t a great way to run things, but we also need to pay attention to what’s pushing and pulling immigration. Recently, Chris Matthews on the Jay Leno show brought the topic up. He talked about how our corporations entice folks from other countries to cross illegally for jobs. It’s easy to understand that corporations want the cheapest labor possible, and they’ll bend and break all the rules they can to make that happen. What we’re allowing our corporations to do is to entice people to come in illegally and take jobs below minimum wage at health risks. Then those corporations score a massive profit because they don’t have to do what other corporations have to do. We aren’t going to change the game today until we pay attention to what’s happening and force corporations to act responsibly and hire according to the laws that are already in place.
The film mentions a dispute between El Salvador and the Pacific Rim Mining Corp. Is that still going on?
Yes. The arbitration is actually happening in D.C. through the World Bank. It’s Pacific Rim vs. El Salvador. As mentioned in the film, Pacific Rim, a Canadian company, brought back a dormant facility in Omaha in order to sue another country using our laws and the Fair Trade agreement. I’m having trouble understanding how this is allowed to happen. If this sort of thing is allowed to happen, that also means multinational corporations could essentially grow new subsidiaries in other countries and then sue the US. It doesn’t seem like it’s in the best interests of the US to allow this sort of thing to happen.
What do you want people to leave with after seeing this?
This is really a story about us as folks that live in the U.S. Again, as John F. Kennedy writes, we are a nation of immigrants. The fact is that Salvadoreans are the third largest hispanic community in the US.., but we know so little. Eighteen months ago I couldn’t have pointed out El Salvador on a map. I think we have a responsibility to pay attention as Americans to where our money and our guns go abroad. I just don’t think we’ve been doing as good of a job as we can to be that beacon we hope America can be. I tend to be a bit of a cynic when it comes to these sorts of things, but I do still think we’re inherently good, we just need to pay attention to what we do. A great example is the School of Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, which comes up at the end of the film. We’ve been training folks, including the attackers of Archbishop Óscar Romero and three American nuns, we trained those killers how to torture and kill—-which included rape in the case of the nuns—we trained them how to do that best at Fort Benning, Georgia in the School of the Americas. I know that I was unaware of a lot of this, and I strongly feel like more Americans, if they got wind of what our tax dollars were doing, they would demand change occur.