Friday, September 4, 2009

Christian Poveda

Yesterday I was shocked and saddened to read about the murder of photojournalist and documentary film maker Christian Poveda. While in Chiapas for a conference last March, he presented his documentary about gangs in El Salvador "Mi Vida Loca" as part of a festival. I met him and we spoke briefly after the Q & A. I was quite struck by his idealism and good intentions. I also had questions about his immersion in their lives, which meant that he shot them committing crimes, and simultaneously, the access that the police also gave him. The documentary was shot and edited in a very reality TV style and it made you feel like a witness which I found deeply disturbing, since we saw crimes committed. The way he presented himself was simultaneously: a journalist and an anthropologist participant-observer, a person that got involved with the subjects' lives beyond the reportage.

The ways in which he presented what he witnessed made human beings out of marginalized criminals and called into question the policing organized by the Salvadorean government. During the Q & A he contextualized the background to these horrific events, the violence that emerged out of the civil war and moved with refugees from LA to El Salvador. He wanted to understand why a generation was led to such violence. He wanted to try to find solutions to reintegrate this lost generation back into society. I was moved by his comments that indicated his personal involvement in the gang members' lives. He kept in touch with them and tried to help them, particularly the women and children, although I was not sure of the specifics. He did say that he was speaking to the current President of El Salvador about possible ways in which the youth could be reinserted into society.

If one of his goals was to make people outside of El Salvador aware of the complexities of this situation and its political origins, he succeeded with me. But to what extent does any documentary really change things? I was talking with friends about this last night, and it made me so heartbroken to realize that now that he was murdered, what has in fact happened is that on the one hand the film has been discussed in the thousands of articles published about his death worldwide; but on the other, the focus is on him. The latest government accounts blame 4 mara members and 1 policeman. If he wanted to persuade people that the gang members could be rehabilitated, clearly now events may persuade most that this is not possible.

What I did not know is that his parents were Spanish Republican exiles that fled to France, where he was born, and that this family history motivated him to fight for human rights. (see below)


Sept. 3 Death of a Journalist Who Combined Professionalism with Strong Humanist Convictions

Journalists in Spain, France, Latin America and elsewhere are mourning the death of a colleague who paid for his dedication with his life. Franco-Spanish documentary filmmaker Christian Poveda was shot dead early yesterday in El Salvador, where he had for some time been covering the extremely violent gangs known in Central America as “maras,” which have killed other journalists in the past. His film on the maras, “La Vida Loca,” (Trailer: is to be premiered in France on 30 September.

Fellow journalist Alain Mingam, a member of the Reporters Without Borders board, said this about his close friend today:

“Christian was the son of Spanish Republicans who sought refuge in France. It was from his origins that he derived the strong humanist convictions to which he always remained faithful. He was a reporter in Chile, under the Pinochet dictatorship, in Nicaragua and El Salvador. He was very committed and involved in his subjects without taking sides. His humanistic convictions went hand in hand with a great deal of professional rigour.

“He had an original approach and an incredible ability to penetrate the worlds he was filming, whether AIDS or anti-fascism in France or the Salvadorean maras. For him, the way a film was edited was more important that any comments you made. This was how he restored humanity to people like the ‘mareros’ regardless of how monstrous their actions were. Christian’s personal involvement in his subject even resulted in his being approached by gangs who saw him as a possible mediator.”

Poveda’s name must nonetheless now be added to the long list of victims of violence between the two main mara groups, “Mara 18” and “Mara Salvatrucha,” which is estimated to have cost 3,700 lives last year.

Aged 54, Poveda was found dead near his car on the road from Apopa to Tonacatepeque, in Rosario, a rural area just to the north of the capital, San Salvador. He had been shot in the head. Police said he was on his way from filming in La Campanera, just to the east of the capital.

A life of danger

Christian Gregorio Poveda Ruiz was born in France on 12 January 1955. He established his reputation as a photo-journalist with a report about the Polisario Front’s war in Western Sahara. Many more reports followed, as well as documentaries that were screened in festivals and broadcast by TV stations.

He began going to El Salvador for the first time in the 1980s to cover the 1980-92 civil war, as a photographer for Time magazine as a correspondent for French news media and international news agencies. He returned to El Salvador in the 1990s, this time covering the armed gang phenomenon. He also covered wars in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.

La Vida Loca

Poveda spent 16 months with the gangs in the east San Salvador of La Campanera in order to make La Vida Loca, which was broadcast for the first time in 2008 and focuses on “Mara 18.” Its images are crude and disturbing – gang members gunned down in the street, the corpses of teenagers, relatives weeping over coffins, young women with their faces covered with tattoos.

According to the local media, Poveda witnessed seven murders in the course of making the film. Three of the seven victims were people who figure prominently in the documentary. Other Mara 18 members who appear in the film were arrested while it was being made.

La Vida Loca also takes a critical look at the strong-arm methods used by the police against the young gang members. While recognising that they sow terror, it portrays gang-members as victims of broken homes who nonetheless fascinate. It also tries to show how young Salvadoreans are pushed into crime by social and economic conditions which, in his view, are too often ignored.

“We must try to understand why a child of 12 or 13 joins a gang and gives his life for it,” Poveda said in an interview for the Salvadorean online daily El Faro. Already broadcast in Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Germany and Hungary, La Vida Loca has never been screened in El Salvador.

(Photo of Christian Poveda: AFP)