“The Word in the Woods” Screening Brings up Themes of Memory and Truth

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

In San Salvador, El Salvador, stands a sculptural tribute to all of the lives lost during the country’s civil war between 1980 and 1991. It is the “Monumento a la Memoria y la Verdad,” or the Monument to Memory and Truth. The memorial is shaped similarly to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. and is inscribed with almost 30,000 names – still less than half of the estimated number of casualties. The civil war, with all of its bloodshed, erupted out of a conflict between the US-backed military Salvadoran government and a coalition of leftist military groups.

The monument that stands to mark its enduring impact is mentioned near the end of producer Jeffrey Gould’s documentary film about the build-up to this civil war – specifically, El Salvadoran peasants involved in Christian Base Communities (CBCs) joining the guerilla movement against their government – La Palabra en el Bosque, or The Word in the Woods. The film was screened on Thursday, March 21, as part of the two-day symposium “Memory, Oral History, and Documentary Filmmaking in Latin America,” organized by Swarthmore history professor Diego Armus and Penn history professor Ann Farnsworth-Alvear. Gould, a Professor of History at Indiana University, was present for a Q & A following the film.

Gould’s film, which also incorporates oral history accounts, brings up important questions about memory and truth and their relation to filmmaking and history. In some ways, his film stands as its own monument to these themes – and their complicated, codependent relationship.

The film focuses on the El Salvadoran region of Morazan, an area heavily influenced by liberation theology. In fact, approximately one third of Northern Morazan’s population ended up joining Christian Base Communities in the years leading up to the civil war. Priests instituted month-long catechist training programs which gave peasants the opportunity to be educated in community-building and the importance of unity and collective action. As one elderly villager says in the film, finger pointing at the side of his head – “There they indoctrinated them.”

By the late 1970’s, most members of these communities had bonded together against the government and joined el Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP; a guerilla group) or its parent organization las Ligas Populares 28 de Febrero. The film touches briefly at the end on the civil war that erupts out of guerilla resistance, but mainly focuses on interviewing peasants about their involvement in CBCs and guerilla programs in the years leading up to the main conflict. These interviews are presented as a patchwork of faces and shots of rural Morazan, interspersed with grainy film from guerilla protests and government retaliation. The peasants interviewed are portrayed in a variety of locations – whether in their homes or outside with sounds of children playing the background. These individual voices make up much of the film, with their honest and often forceful opinions.

One of the main difficulties that Gould grappled with during the making of the film was how to treat disparities between oral accounts and historical facts, a struggle he discussed in an interview with The Daily Gazette. Although Gould acknowledges that there is really no such thing as “fact” in regards to the past – no accounts are truly reliable –  in the scope of this “something fairly arbitrary called history,” as he puts it, oral accounts are especially subjective because of the distortion  inherent in memory.

One example of such a distortion is the reasons given by the peasants for why catechists joined the guerilla program in the first place. While most people interviewed for the film claimed government retaliation towards CBCs caused them to take up arms, this explanation is “only partially true,” according to Gould. By 1974, he said, 30 catechists had joined a newly formed guerilla group but “hadn’t suffered directly from oppression for being in CBCs.”

In Gould’s article about the film, “The Word in the Woods: Historical Analysis and the Documentary,” he posits that “the latter developments [the government’s later crackdown on CBCs] provided significant historical and memory material for the narrative of repression as the cause for the destruction of the [CBC]s and the creation of the guerrilla army.” This narrative most likely came out of both collective and individual memory.

According to current oral history scholarship, collective memory is the narrative formed collectively by a community about the past, heavily influenced by the need to make the story of a people make sense – even when what actually happened does not line up neatly. Individual memory also looks for order, patterns, and coherence in the face of a complicated past. Gould’s challenge was to present the voices of these peasants, their stories riddled with the revisions of memory, while also giving the audience some more accurate background.

Gould, like many scholars who deal with oral history, thinks that first person accounts of the past are valuable for what their distortions say about the influences and values of the time. As historian Alessandro Portelli writes about oral history, “errors, inventions, and myths lead us through and beyond facts to their meanings.” In this case, the fact that later government crack-down on CBCs was seen, retrospectively and incorrectly, as relevant before the late 1970’s, shows that this oppression had a huge impact on the peasants – so much so that it colors their memory of earlier years.

Gould paraphrased one of his colleagues, Daniel James, to explain his own opinion on the oral accounts he gathered. “The testimonies offer a view of consciousness through a window that itself is very clouded up […] it’s an imperfect and problematic view […] but it’s the best we’ve got.” Since most of the people Gould has interviewed during his career “have left no written traces produced by themselves,” due to their lack of cultural capital, oral history is their only outlet through which to share their experiences. “Oral history provides the only method which allows you any approximation to their consciousness […] how they understand the world around them at the time,” he said. In this case, memory approximates truth, and the two themes of the monument come together, united.

Gould wanted to make sure that the valuable voices of his subjects were supplemented by some sort of historical background, but he also wanted to avoid a traditional narrator whose authority might overshadow that of the peasants he interviewed. “Basically what he tried to do was to come up with an alternative […] to an omniscient narrator,” he said. “After a lot of experimentation, we came up with this partial solution,” he said, describing how the filmmaking team worked with a rural schoolteacher in an “economically marginal” part of El Salvador, who was filmed while pretending to teach a class to local children about the guerilla movement. There was “a degree of artificiality to the encounter that we ultimately found unavoidable,” Gould said. However, the classroom scenes in the film bring an air of humbleness to the history lesson, with close-ups of the students’ faces adding an intimacy to the narration.

On the filmmakers’ part, editing is another way in which the testimonies are potentially subject to manipulation. “It’s a process that is somewhat akin to that which a historian uses when dealing with all of the primary material that he or she has gathered […] and wants to produce a narrative,” Gould said. “To some degree, you’re selecting what’s most representative […] to some extent, what’s most compelling,” he said, noting that a film must be compelling both “narrative-wise and visually.” Although the filmmakers tried to present clips of conversations that were most honest to the interviewees’ views, they also had to act as artists and make an appealing product. “Ultimately, there’s no question that we ended up shaping the narrative,” Gould said. “It wasn’t some sort of spontaneous emanation of authentic truth.”

Clearly, factual truth isn’t the goal of either oral historians or artists. Emotional truth, however – the subjective meanings hiding behind facts that Portelli describes – is far more attainable. Some would argue that it is also more interesting. In discussing the differences between truth, history, and memory, Gould said that the term “historical memory” is one he hears mainly in Central America. Historical memory “attempts to provide a coherence and a form to these streams of memory that are generated by individuals and objects related to past events,” he said. The Word in the Woods is certainly a contribution to historical memory – it serves the purpose of making sense of the past with its own unavoidable narrative while also presenting different, opposing narratives. In this “Monumento a la Memoria y la Verdad,” the meanings of “memoria” and “verdad” are left up to the audience to judge. 

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