Frank Christopher admits that his film does not attempt to tell "both sides" of the war between guerrillas and U.S.-backed government troops in El Salvador. "But in no way do we try to hide anything either," he said. "We show the essence of guerrilla war."
That essence was good enough to garner an Academy Award nomination for "In the Name of the People," a San Diego-produced documentary about life behind guerrilla lines in El Salvador. On Wednesday, the National Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences named the film among the Oscar nominees for best feature-length documentary of 1984.
Christopher and Alex W. Drehsler produced the 75-minute documentary for Pan American Films. Isaac Artenstein of Coronado was associate producer. Actor Martin Sheen is narrator.
The film takes a sympathetic look at the people who live and fight in the guerrilla-held territories of Chalatenango, northwest of San Salvador on the Honduran border, and Guazapa, an extinct volcano overlooking San Salvador.
"We went down there with the feeling that these people were defending people under attack. We wanted to look at what kind of society they were building. We knew they were more than just bands of terrorists. And they were, in fact, building an embryonic society," Christopher said.
Drehsler and Christopher, cinematographer John Chapman and sound recorder Douglas Bruce crossed from Honduras to El Salvador--through government lines and into the guerrilla zones--to film for five weeks in February and March, 1982. Afterward, because they had no identification papers, they sought protection in the Mexican Embassy in San Salvador. After a week, they were deported.
The film was not completed until last year, Christopher said, because of a shortage of money and a need to distance themselves from the material.
"We needed to gain perspective," he said. "The experience was an overwhelming one. Our first version reflected our own knowledge, but didn't communicate with other people who had no background on Central America. We showed it to a lot of different audiences and we had to go searching for footage from the networks to get scenes that make a historical and social context."
Christopher estimated that it cost $150,000 to produce the film, $50,000 of which has yet to be paid.
"Raising the money for post-production was an enormous task," Christopher said. But the film is beginning to earn money.
In showings in San Diego and San Francisco, the documentary has sold about $1,500 worth of tickets a day.
"I'm really very excited about the nomination because I think one of the problems we have for this film is to get exposure," Christopher said. "I think even if we don't win, the nomination will elevate the film out of all the other documentaries made last year."