Return to El Salvador

 by Tim Høiland

Why do 700 Salvadorans leave their native country every day? This is the burning question behind documentary filmmaker Jamie Moffett's latest project, Return to El Salvador. Narrated by Martin Sheen and endorsed by such figures as Ron Sider, Shane Claiborne and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the film provides a rare glimpse into how our lives as North Americans are directly tied to those of this tiny Central American nation. I recently interviewed Moffett about the film.

Why have you chosen to tell this story?

My introduction to this story came through my connection as a co-founder of The Simple Way community. In 1999, Salvadoran pastors Ruth and Alex Orantes came to visit us in … Philadelphia, and we just kind of fell in love with each other. Through them I gained my first perspective into the country of El Salvador.

I learned a lot more about this through Betsy Morgan, a professor of mine at Eastern University. I was in post-production on my first documentary, The Ordinary Radicals, and I asked her to be an advisor for the film. At that time she was directing a one-hour documentary for PBS about the 1992 peace accords in El Salvador. Hearing about this project from her made me curious and I kept asking more and more questions. It seemed that the more questions I asked, the more disturbing and compelling the answers I'd receive. It got to the point where I felt like this story–which in a way was my story–was non-negotiable for me.

One recurring theme in the film is the importance of being with the people of El Salvador. What does this look like?

In the case of Ruth and Alex Orantes, folks in the US created a fund called the Cielo Azul Fund (, which is wholly designated to provide basic living and school funds for Ruth and Alex, who do a lot of work with churches in El Salvador and also spend quite a lot of time working with poor folks in the countryside. Once the film breaks even, we will be contributing 5% of profits to them as well.

Eighteen months ago I couldn't have pointed out El Salvador on a map. Even though I have quite a lot of learning left to do, I am passionately engaged in this subject, with lots of ideas. It's important to point out, though, that folks who live in El Salvador have far more accurate and efficient methods of operating there. So my intention in providing this documentary is to assist in accompanying Salvadoran folks instead of imposing US ideas and ideologies on them.

A particularly poignant part of the film has to do with the mysterious disappearance and murder of Marcelo Rivera, the anti-mining activist. How does this incident relate to the broader situation in El Salvador?
Marcelo's case is an example of the lack of control over corporate actions in North America and how Pacific Rim, a Canadian mining corporation, can use influence–whether they actually pulled the trigger or used their funds-to help silence him. There is no doubt that Pacific Rim is negatively influencing events in the region and in the Cabañas district of El Salvador. What I hope viewers can learn from this story is that we're not helpless in the United States and Canada. There are actions we can take to stop these kinds of corporate actions from occurring.

I'm working with a Member of Parliament in Canada named John McKay who has presented a piece of corporate accountability legislation called Bill C-300. ( There are 2700 Canadian mining corporations which account for 10% of the country's gross domestic product. These corporations receive taxpayer-funded government subsidies. Some of these companies choose to misrepresent the environmental impacts of their actions in these countries. McKay and many MPs have been saying this needs to have some sort of corporate control, the intention being that if mining companies are going to continue to operate in such a poor fashion abroad, they will no longer be eligible for subsidies.

Marcelo's story is about a corporation that exerted its will on a community. That community decided to stand up, and that corporation struck back in a way that would end in the death of Marcelo and two more anti-mining activists in Cabañas.

What role do you see churches, both in El Salvador and in the US, playing in reference to the themes of the film?
Faith is an inherent component in El Salvador. Many of the people I talked to, whether they lived in the countryside or in the cities, said that Archbishop Oscar Romero was the religious figure who spoke on their behalf. He was assassinated by a US-trained soldier while presiding over mass, and this sent the country spiraling into civil war. The faith component of churches is one of the strongest foundations in El Salvador and it's important for churchgoing folks abroad to be aware of that.

In the 1980s there was a Sanctuary Movement in the US. At Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, a pastor named John Fife and the congregation provided sanctuary for refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala during those wars at significant personal cost. He was arrested, thrown in jail, and convicted, but he and others chose time and again to risk their own safety and to spend jail time just to keep these folks from being deported, knowing full well that if they were refugees it was because death squads were after them.

Churches performed a role that the US government refused to, and because of it they literally saved thousands of those who were threatened with death in their home countries. From my viewpoint as an Agnostic, I am completely humbled and inspired by people whose Christian faith compelled them to give of themselves so freely so that others wouldn't be sent back to the death squads.

Learn more ( about Return to El Salvador and when it is coming to a theater near you. Read more of this interview at the author's website. ( And hear from the filmmaker at the Huffington Post. (

Tim Hoiland is writing the November/December cover story for PRISM, which will focus on North American abuses in Central American mines.


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