In a scene from the Salvadoran documentary “Unforgivable”, Giovanni, the main character, blatantly tells a violent murder.
And then he pronounces a phrase that frames this film: “It’s easier to kill a person than to love a man.”
This is all happening in the overcrowded environment of San Francisco Gotera prison, where a group of gang members and expanders publicly recognize their homosexuality.
After 12 days of filming, the final product has already paid its first fruits: a few weeks ago, “Unforgivable” was selected by the “IDA Documentary”.
And having won several awards, such as Best Short Film at the IDFA and HotDoc, he could be among those selected to be nominated for the Oscar Award.
“ I wish it was. It would be the first time that a film from El Salvador has reachedthe Academy Awards , “said its director, Spanish director Marlén Viñayo.
BBC Mundo spoke with Viñayo to learn more about this production that could make history.
How do you get to the story of men, gang members, inside a prison, who decide openly to say they are gay?
I’ve been living here in El Salvador for almost eight years and the truth that at this time I had never been interested in making any documentary about gangs. Because it is one of the best-known and most told topics from El Salvador to the world and I thought I had nothing new to contribute.
But one day, Carlos Martínez, who is a gang reporter for the El Faro newspaper, told me he had just left a prison in San Francisco Gotera and that there he had met gang members who had openly said they were gay.
I was very surprised because gangs are profoundly macho and homophobic criminal organizations. And because of the mere suspicion that one of its members is gay, they kill them. So, discovering this group of people because I was very surprised.
With that story I realized that I had something new to tell and that I could offer a unique and different perspective to everything that gangs have told you before about the subject.
The story is, of course, very interesting, but what do you want to tell in this documentary?
I’m trying to tell a story that the world is complex. Which is not a matter of perfect good or bad perfect. That the world is not pure white or pure black, but there are many grays.
I think this documentary is about those greys. It’s a story that talks about love, that speaks of hate. That speaks of the abyss to which a human being can reach and that portrays a society with a broken moral compass: for some people it is easier to kill one man than to love another.
Ideally, the documentary should provoke a debate on that subject.
How do you film a production in a prison where even the guards have to be hooded so they don’t recognize them?
Well, for me it was a challenge especially because I knew we only had 12 days of shooting. They only gave us that time to access jail.
And we didn’t know what we were going to find. I was interested in first knowing why these people – of whom I didn’t know anything so far – had decided to join a criminal organization such as a gang, which also hates them because they are.
Another doubt I had was whether finally in this small isolation cell – where prisoners who declare themselves homosexuals were taken – they had felt somehow free.
But when we got there we didn’t know very well what reality was going to give us. Then the challenge was that in those 12 days of filming we had to be with our eyes super open, with our ears super pending what reality had to tell us.
It was a very intense shooting, in a very small filming space, but we were lucky that not only did they give us permission to record inside the prison, but they allowed us to enter and film inside the cell, which for me that was fundamental.
When we already found the characters, at one point we found the meaning of the film, which is when one of them says that for him to kill a person was bad but it was not so difficult, while loving another man was something out of “the natural”.
And what we’re trying to do with the documentary is to make sense of that phrase.
They are gang members, accused of serious crimes, don’t you run a risk of making apology for a group that has caused so much pain in El Salvador?
I think the gangs have done a lot of damage to the country, they’ve done endless atrocities, but I also think that’s in the documentary.
There’s that part of the gang member that murders people, who rapes people, that’s not omitted in the documentary. In fact, it was very important to us that that was there.
But we also wanted to show another point of view. Because gangs have done deep damage not only in El Salvador, but in other parts of the continent, and to try to make that stop happening we have to know them very well, we have to understand them.
I repeat, this is not perfect good or perfect bad. When a 12-year-old boy becomes a murderer and then does horrible things, for me he is also a victim of a society that has made him murderer when he’s only 12 years old.
So I think the issue is more complex, that Salvadoran society is very complex.
That leaves us a character like Giovanni , who in a nutshell reveals us in half an hour almost his entire life .
Yes, when we got to jail we asked those who were there who wanted to participate, some answered yes and among them was Giovanni, who not only had an interesting story, but it was important to make known and told a lot about what this Salvadoran society is.
In addition, he had a couple relationship with someone who was in the same cell and there were certain conflicts between them that seemed to us were going to give another point of view to the documentary. That’s why we decided he was the central character.
With Giovanni I confirmed this that I told you: that human being is very complex. That it is very easy to judge from the prejudice that we each have, but that, if you know each other’s stories much more, you realize that everything is much more complicated.
And that led us to have very intense debates during production and editing, because we didn’t want to romanticize the image of the gang. Not only to show that because he was homosexual he was being a victim, but to prove that he was also a murderer and had done terrible things.
For me, too, it was a conflict almost to ask myself: “What do I feel about these people?”, because in a moment they tell you some horrible things, with absolute coldness, and then there are moments of tenderness and love between them. And that’s why I decided that I didn’t have to say what I feel about them, but try to convey this reality that we are in this little cell and that the public draw their own conclusions.
There is a very powerful religious element within this story. How often are they found within the exploration of production?
The religious theme goes into this quest to try to make sense of that phrase Geovany told us, which for him it was easier to kill than to love a person of the same sex.
Well there we found different aspects of Salvadoran society that we had to portray. And one of them was the Church, or, rather, the Church’s position on this subject, which was very important for the main character because in the prison where he is there are two Churches that are struggling for control of the place.
Added to this is the gang’s stance on gays. And the state’s position on this issue, which we can see with the scientific test (a kind of personality test) that they do to the protagonist.
And there are also the individual contradictions, what is meant to them being gay in this society and that microworld in which they live
But about prison there is something interesting to say: two years ago, most of the prisoners who were there left the gang and converted to a Christian Church. And in the documentary we can see that this is part of the daily lives of inmates.
With a special ingredient: those who gave up the gangs were enemies to death and once they stopped belonging to those groups they became brothers of religion. And so, there is this small group of expanders, now converted to Christianity, who openly say they are gay. Very complex, as I was saying.
And it is also clear that prisons in El Salvador are not intended places for reintegration, but for punishment.
Production effort is noted. Do you have any kind of support or help to film in El Salvador?
No. It is a country that does not have a film industry, that has no film law, there is no film fund. Television does not invest in making film projects. There is no training.
It’s really a background race, where those who really want to make movies die to do it, because we care that stories are told, but where it is very difficult to achieve it.
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