In his latest work, which was being singled out for praise on the first day of Malaga’s Spanish Screenings, Imanol Uribe recounts the fateful story of Lucia Cerna, the only witness to the 1989 massacre in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests and two other people by a U.S.-trained death squad at a university residence in San Salvador.
“What Lucia Saw” (“Llegaron de Noche”) focuses on the story of Lucia and her husband Jorge, who, with the help of church officials and Spanish and French diplomats, are spirited out of the country to Miami, where they hope to find safe haven. Once in the U.S., however, they fall into the clutches of the FBI and a Salvadoran colonel, who interrogate the couple in an effort to discredit Lucia’s testimony.
Uribe, a leading light of the early ’80s Basque cinema whose works also include the acclaimed 1994 terrorist drama “Numbered Days,” with Javier Bardem, and the 2015 thriller “Far From the Sea,” had long wanted to tell the story of the murdered Jesuits, in part because of his own connection to El Salvador and to the Catholic order. The son of Basque parents, Uribe was born in El Salvador, where his father opened a shoe factory in the 1950s. The family eventually returned to Spain while Uribe was still a boy. There he attended Jesuit schools in Bilbao and Tudela. “I was affected deeply when the massacre took place and it’s something that has always stayed with me.”
“Of all the projects I have done – I’ve already made 15 movies – this is the one that has taken me the longest to set up,” he adds. “I’ve been with it for five years.”
Uribe had been unable to crack the story until he came across “Noviembre,” a book about the Jesuit massacre by Salvadoran writer Jorge Galán that also covered Lucia Cerna’s harrowing experience. Telling the story through Lucia’s eyes seemed like a good way to structure the film, he adds.
Uribe traveled to El Salvador to interview the Jesuits who survived the massacre, in particular Father José María Tojeira. He then went to California, where Lucia and Jorge Cerna now reside. “They were very friendly to us. We interviewed them over two days and she told us the story and that’s how it came together.”
In prepping the film, Uribe says he only had one person in mind for the role of Lucia, Colombian actress Juana Acosta. “She was the first option I thought of. I saw it very clearly. She had the necessary qualities to play the character.”
While working on a separate project in California, Acosta contacted Lucia Cerna and ended up spending considerable time with her. “She really prepared very, very well. And you see that,” Uribe says.
The cast also includes Juan Carlos Martínez, Karra Elejalde and Carmelo Gómez.
While he initially considered shooting the film on location in El Salvador, Uribe ultimately decided to film instead in Colombia – in Cali and Buga, which have similar landscapes to El Salvador – as well as Navarra, Spain.
In telling the story of Lucia Cerna, the film leaves the U.S. government’s direct involvement in training El Salvador’s death squads and supplying weapons to the country’s military throughout the 12-year civil war somewhat on the periphery.
“In fact, there was an initial script that was much longer, I think it was up to three hours, which depicted that facet,” Uribe explains. It also addressed the schism between Pope John Paul II’s Vatican and the liberation theology championed by the Jesuits in Latin America. In the end, however, Uribe decided to focus on the story of Lucia and her family and less on the geopolitical aspects of the conflict.
“At that time the U.S. had a very terrible anti-communism policy in Latin America – also in Chile, and in Argentina,” he adds. “The deaths of the Jesuits was in part the beginning of the end of the war in El Salvador.”
Indeed, the late Rev. Paul S. Tipton, then president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities in Washington (played by Ben Temple in the film), led a campaign to pressure the U.S. government and demand truth and justice in the case. His work with a congressional task force established to investigate the crimes led to Congress suspending U.S. military aid to El Salvador and ultimately to a resolution of the civil war.
The U.S. spent more than $4 billion in economic and military aid to El Salvador’s government between 1980 and 1992, fueling a war that claimed more than 75,000 lives.
“What Lucia Saw” screens in competition at the Malaga Festival in Spain. The film, sold internationally by Latido Films, is produced by Nunca digas nunca, A.I.E., Bowfinger International Pictures, Tornasol and 64A Films.