New York

“Artists Call” —Video

The Artists Call program was important both for its educational value and as a public acceptance by the art community of a political responsibility it’s often accused of avoiding. I didn’t see all the video activities held during it—there were panels and performances on cable as well as special screenings at the Museo del Barrio, Millennium Film Workshop, and Downtown Community Television. The highlight for me, though, was the series of documentaries about Central America by such U.S. independents as Karen Ranucci and Jon Alpert, Thomas Halsall, DeeDee Halleck, and many more, shown at the Kitchen. These tapes not only provided information about specific political and economic issues in each of the Central American countries (revealing in many cases how similar and yet how different those questions are), but, more importantly, gave a rich view of the texture of life in those countries—how people hold themselves, how they speak, what the land is like. Because of its sense of immediacy, video excels at conveying the emotional tang of direct experience (even a tape seen a dozen times retains a sense of being live), but is less effective at conveying the intricacies of complex analyses requiring abstract thought, or at delineating contrasting points of view. In the strength of its intense, ceaseless illusion and in its resistance to logical subtlety, it’s like a tremendously powerful mule.

As a propaganda tool video works best when it offers simple narratives, with clearcut heroes and heroines faced with involving tasks and problems. This truism was demonstrated here once again by two remarkable propaganda tapes made by the Radio Venceremos System of the Salvadoran rebels. One, Letter from Morazan, 1982, provided a report on the status of the fighting, couched in the form of a letter from two guerrillas to their comrades elsewhere in Latin America. The other, Seedtime of Hope, 1983, discussed the role of the Catholic Church in the revolution, and included footage of Bishop Oscar Romero, assassinated in 1980 for speaking out against the government, and of the grave of the four American nuns murdered that year by national guardsmen, as well as interviews with a very articulate priest who supports the rebel cause. Both tapes are out-and-out propaganda, but their candor about this is a strength, not a liability—the emotional directness of video tends to spotlight insincerity. Considering that these tapes must have been shot and edited under far from ideal circumstances, they are remarkably well crafted. The climax of Letter from Morazan is a gripping record of an ambush on a convoy of government troops; later, when the captured troops are interviewed, it becomes clear that although they’re well equipped and armed (by the U.S.) they have no idea what they’re fighting for—most are draftees, dragooned into the army against their will. The rebels, on the other hand, are convinced they have justice and history on their side. It’s not necessary to agree with them, or to support the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, to oppose U.S. intervention in the region.

These are remarkable tapes, and deserve to be seen widely. (Information about them is available from the El Salvador Film and Video Project in New York; [212] 989-0541.) They won’t make the networks; instead, their audiences are likely to be the same kinds of people who responded to the labor newsreels of the Film and Photo League in the ’30s—church and labor groups, students. Groups like these must be at the core of any attempt to arouse public opinion about U.S. policy. Popular wisdom has it that TV news played a major role in turning the U.S. public against the Vietnam War, but it’s sobering to remember that that war dragged on for five bloody years after the country had elected Nixon on an implicit promise to end it. Furthermore, middle-class American boys were being killed then; in this war, it’s largely Central Americans who are dying so far, making it unlikely that the American public will be roused from the Dallas and A-Team dream it’s in. In more immediate terms, the best way to help end U.S. interference in Central America involves practical politics here at home—working to defeat Ronald Reagan in this year’s election.

Charles Hagen