Hombres Armados (Men With Guns)
A Film by John Sayles


Hombres Armados - Men With Guns The new movie from ultimate independent cine-auteur John Sayles is a powerful experience. As an American feature-film made in Spanish about an un-named South-or-Central American country, the point of view is already challenging. As a chilling exploration of the politics of terrorism through the eyes of the victim, it should be required viewing for civics and social studies classes, perhaps for any of us who feel the complacent security of living in a first world country.

Sayles, who wrote and edited the film as well as directed it, presents his story through the eyes of a largely apolitical, middle-class doctor living in the capital city, who is on the verge of retirement. Having lost his wife and with his daughter grown, he finds himself looking back on life. As a social liberal (rather than a political one) one of his points of pride is his participation in a project to train young doctors to go out into the rural areas and provide medical care to the native people. He decides to spend his vacation visiting his young proteges to see the fruits of his labor.

The first hint that something may be wrong comes in a conversation he has with one of his patients, a high-ranking military officer, who tries to deny the existence of guerrillas and at the same time blame them for the ills of the rural areas. Doctor Fuentes is undecided about whether to go until he meets one of his former students in the capital. The student has abandoned the mountain village to which he was assigned, is living in the slums, dealing on the black market and selling drugs. He gives Fuentes some veiled hints about his experiences in the countryside and then dismisses him as "the most learned man I have ever met - and the most ignorant."

Curious and concerned about his former students, and stung by this criticism, Fuentes determines to travel into the countryside and track them down. The rest of the film is the story of the journey of discovery he undertakes.

Although the film has no specific ideological agenda - we never hear anything of the "politics" of either the government or the guerrillas - it has a profoundly humanist one: to give a picture of life in countries where force of arms takes the place of the rule of law. Along his path Fuentes encounters a blind campesino, a young orphan, a military deserter, a village priest and a mute girl. These companions gradually expose to him the human costs of the comfortable, middle-class life he has so long taken for granted.

In the country he finds a world of exploitation and brutality, where for the indigenous people, the enemy is not one side or the other, but rather, both sides - the "men with guns." While creating compelling images of life lived in places like Chiapas, El Salvador, Guatemala and Colombia, Sayles steers us toward contemplation of how such things come to be.

The military deserter, who first appears as a threatening presence, turns out to be a frightened, conscience-stricken innocent. Yet he has been among the same forces that massacred the villagers from the priestÕs village and raped the mute girl.

The orphaned boy, enthralled by a televised depiction of military violence, gives a hint of where the next generation of "hombres armados" will come from.

The priest tells a tale of sacrifice and destruction that reiterates the hopeless attempts at appeasement made by European Jews during pogroms or the Nazi persecutions, and raises the question of the morality of surrender.

The young orphan tells of being the soldiers' "mascot," witnessing their interrogations and rapes with amoral indifference. Another character asks whether he is good or bad. "He is like a dog," comes the reply and, "dogs are neither good nor bad, they are just dogs."

Political assassinations and murders, disappearances, the massacres of whole villages of innocent civilians are incidents in history or on the nightly news from Bosnia, Africa and the southern reaches of our own hemisphere. Sayles brings these incidents to life in a poignant and harrowing way.He reflects on the sources and repercussions of these incidents in a way news stories seldom do.

The United States is today the home of both many who fled their native countries to the to escape the kind of violence the film describes and others who fled to avoid responsibility for the violence they ordered or led. From fugitives from and collaborators with Naziism to Rwandans, Bosnians, and many others, people whose lives have been shaped by forces like the ones Sayles examines here are all around us. Our complacent disregard for their stories, he suggests, harms us - as it does his protagonist - more than we know.

We don't want to see this face of universal brotherhood: that both the oppressors and the victims, as well as those who stand blindly by, are our brothers and by extension potentially any one of us. In the US we teach that such behavior is foreign to everything we stand for.

Sayles suggests that our humanity is a luxury that can easily be squandered. In one scene the doctor, who has been terrorized and kidnapped by the deserter, takes the deserter's revolver when he falls asleep. First he contemplates using it on the deserter. Then he examines it and discovers there are no bullets, that he has been frightened of man with a gun that has no power. He returns the revolver and never mentions it.

Sayles, who started as a writer of fiction, is above all a story-teller. As he has proved in film after film, his interest is in telling stories that raise basic moral and philosophical questions through events of our time.

With Hombres Armados he invites us to observe a painful, repellant reality of life. Yet our witness is not without hope. The travellers all respond, when asked where they are headed, "farther on." Their final destination turns out to be a semi-mythical gathering place called Cerca del Cielo, described by other refugees as "a village so high and well hidden that no one can find it, not the army, not the guerrillas."

When they arrive there, the doctor contemplates the journey. "So this," he says, looking at the misery, fear and hopelessness around him, "is my legacy." But as events unfold, it becomes clear that the humanitarian impulse that led him to become a doctor, to train other doctors and to begin the journey the story recounts has been communicated, and will be passed on. How far it will go is unresolved, but that it is as real a part of the human condition as the impulse to terrorize and dominate of the "men with guns" is the filmÕs final point.

Sayles is almost unique in American film-making. Originally a complete independent, financing his films himself from the earnings from his writing, grants (he is a MacArthur fellow), and private investments, he has made difficult films that provoke thought.

With the exception of the fairy-tale The Secret Of Roan Inish he has concentrated on the interplay of personal decisions and their repercussions both personally and on the community. His willingness to address the difficult moral questions of our time and his ability to personalize them as he did in Matewan, Eight Men Out, City Of Hope, and as he does here, makes his body-of-work perhaps the most important of any film-maker of his generation.

He continues to grow as a director. In Men With Guns he uses a Spanish-speaking cast of mostly non-professionals, and draws powerful, convincing performances from them. In spite of his literary background, he is able to stand back from the words and let the pictures tell the story. In the scene with the revolver, described above, there is not a word of dialogue.

The film was shot entirely on location in Mexico, mostly out of doors. Yet the production values are excellent. There is nothing second-rate about any part of it, from the cinematography and sound to the wonderful latin music that underscores the action. Composer Mason Daring adds small thematic touches and bridges that unobtrusively do their part to move the action along.

Sayles has set himself a difficult task here. It is a tribute to his ability as a film-business person (and that of his long-time partner and producer Maggie Renzi) that he got a distribution deal with the Sony organization. He has made a movie which is not fun to watch, but he has proved before that difficult movies which invite people to think do have an audience, and if made inexpensively and well, can make money.

Sayles is a rarity in modern film, a film-maker with courage, intelligence and developed skill. He uses his abilities not for self-enrichment or aggrandizement, but to do his work: to tell stories he thinks are interesting and important. As he has before (and I hope will often again), in Hombres Armados, he tells a difficult story without flinching and without romanticizing. He exposes, he witnesses, he prods us to respond.

That's my take on it. What's yours?