Revolutionary prose: Tina Leisch discusses her film about poet Roque Dalton
The power of words, the marriage of prose and revolution, these are some of the themes explored in the documentary "Let's Shoot The Night," a new film by director Tina Leisch. It journeys through the life and times of Roque Dalton, a radical poet from El Salvador who could be considered one of the last of that romantic, 19th century-tinged breed of writers like George Orwell and Jose Marti. They backed their words with action. In Dalton's case he became involved in the 1970s with leftist guerrilla movements in El Salvador, a venture which resulted in his assassination in 1975. The film features intimate acquaintances of the poet, family members and even Eduardo Galeano, author of "Open Veins Of Latin America," who comments on Dalton's life and legacy. Salvadoran locals also read some of Dalton's fiery prose.
So far "Let's Shoot The Night" has won the Best Documentary Feature award at the Cine Las Americas International Film Festival in Austin, Texas and has been invited to be screened at over 21 international film festivals. The film is currently being prepared for a DVD and internet release next year.
When Leisch travelled to El Salvador in the 1980s, she witnessed a country mired in civil war and discovered the searing work of Dalton.
"I read his [Dalton's] wonderful political poems when I lived in El Salvador in the time of the war in the eighties. But at this time I could not find a lot about his life and nothing about his mysterious death," shared Leisch in an exchange from her home country of Austria.
"We asked people in schools and in prisons, in brothels and universities, in El Salvador, Cuba, Mexico, Austria, Germany, to read for us and for our camera some of Dalton's poems. And most of the people were deeply touched by his clear words condemning injustice and pleading to fight for a better world."
The Salvadoran civil war was a fierce struggle between the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of leftist armed movements, and the U.S.-backed military regime that ruled the small Central American country in the 1980s. When the FMLN, now as a legal political party, won the 2009 presidential elections, Leisch knew it was time to return and explore the life of Dalton.
"We worked four years on the project. I first traveled to El Salvador in December 2009 to meet Dalton's widow and his sons and his Salvadoran friends from the 'Generación Comprometida'", said Leisch. The Generacion Comprometida (Devoted Generation) was the name given to a generation of Salvadoran intellectuals, among them Dalton, who sought to reshape their national culture through a new, revolutionary consciousness brought about through action and the arts.
Tracking Dalton's life was as adventurous as the story of the poet himself. The film crew trekked from Prague to Havana, following the footsteps of a writer who lived and breathed the radical struggles of the generation influenced by the Cuban Revolution.
In Cuba Leisch met with Dalton's widow, Aída Cañas. "I had the honour to sit with Aída Cañas de Dalton in the house of the Dalton family in Havana and Aída told me how she and Roque fell in love as teenagers, how they shared a life of persecutions, expulsions, of political fights and artistic adventures," remembered Leisch.
Former comrades shared memories of a time when Latin American radicals flocked to the land of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara to seek training to return home and ignite the fire of armed struggle. "When I sat with Ricardo Castrorrivas, he told us about the military training the young Communists from El Salvador received in Cuba in the sixties and how they were betrayed by a traitor," the director revealed.
Other former comrades took Leisch on a tour of more seedier places. "Dalton's comrade from the Jesuit College, Luis Dominguez Parada, showed me the brothels of San Salvador and he and the sex workers commented on Dalton's poem 'Nom de guerre.'"
While shooting in Prague, Dalton's son Jorge shared his own recollections of living history with his father. "When we looked for the flat the Daltons had lived in in Prague in the sixties, Jorge Dalton found the cherry tree he would play by as a child and he remembered his father shouting 'They killed Che Guevara' from one of the balconies. Jorge made me understand how hard it is to be the young son of a hero who had decided to give his life for the revolution," said Leisch.
Next year will mark 40 years since Dalton was murdered by members of a guerrilla movement he had joined upon returning from exile, the ERP (Revolutionary Popular Army). The murder remains one of El Salvador's great enigmas from the era of the civil war's brewing stages. Allegations and theories have ranged from suspicions that Dalton chased after a guerrilla commander's girlfriend to his unit suspecting he was a spy.
"It was also difficult for ex-members of the ERP to speak openly about the crimes of their former leaders," said Leisch. "On the one hand, because some people still consider it to be treason to speak about the crimes the left wing organisations committed in a country where 90% of war crimes were committed by the right wing, the army, the death squads, their backers and advisors from the United States."
The film crew began receiving anonymous phone calls warning them not to pursue the story of Dalton's killing. "That means that the murderers or their friends tried to intimidate us. Don't forget, that one of them, Jorge Melendez has recently been assigned a high position in the newly-elected FMLN government. ( An incredible offense to the Dalton family!)."
Even the main suspect, former guerrilla commander Joaquin Villalobos, switched sides and now consults right-wing regimes in countries like Colombia and Mexico. "So it is quite a risk for an ex-comandante who is today a poor contruction worker to testify against his ex-chiefs who made their carreer selling the knowledge they aquired in the liberation movement to oppressors and torturers of liberation fighters."
There are also suspicions that the CIA itself, at the time actively engaged in helping local regimes wipe out leftist revolutionary threats, might have orchestrated the murder. But for Leisch it might take another leaker like Edward Snowden to reveal the truth.
Latin America has radically changed since Dalton's era. While Che remains a major icon, the region has shifted to the left over the last decade through elections. If Latin America is now indeed the most socialist zone on Earth, Leisch acknowledged this as a result of the efforts of Dalton's generation. "This change is the result of the fearless engagement of people like Roque Dalton, of this wonderful generation of his friends and lovers and comrades who fought against those dictatorships."
In the current post-Cold War world where the clash of ideologies might be perceived to have faded, but not the struggles against inequality, Leisch believes there is much to admire in the spontaneous, creative spirit of a radical thinker like Dalton. "He was by no means a orthodox Communist. He was irreverent, antidogmatic, a free thinker, who had lots of conflicts with dogmatic comrades," she pointed out.
And yet, like many great poets, Dalton was at heart a true romantic. Leisch pointed out the beauty of one of his love poems, "Memory," where he writes:
"And your breath and my breath were neighboring rivers
and your skin and mine two dominions borders
and me in you like the strom touching the volcano’s root
and you for me like narrows rained on
for the first light."
For Leisch the life of Roque Dalton can serve as an inspiring testament to the spirit of dreaming, struggling and creating for the vision of a better tomorrow. "I hope people come out of the cinema very hungry for reading Dalton's works and encouraged to change the world, of overcoming fear and choosing the decent and humble life of a revolutionary."