Judge Daryl Loomis would like this documentary to reach as wide an audience as March of the Penguins.
"God gave us memories so we could have roses in December."—J.M. Barrie
Political documentaries have a tough road to tread. Their nature forbids objectivity, so there will always be viewers who immediately shut their eyes due to disagreements in point of view. At the same time, if the project is only seen by those who already agree with the message, nobody is enlightened and the statement remains unheard. I take issue with a filmmaker like Michael Moore who, much as I agree with the statements, simply finds his enemies' weak points and attacks them with little more than mockery. This can be amusing to like-minded individuals but, with nobody listening, it doesn't effect change and fails.
More powerful filmmakers know to hedge their bets. Instead of just poking into sore spots to satisfy their followers, they find a way to get their message heard by as many as possible. With a compelling story that also reveals the message, a film can get more easily into viewers' hearts and minds, even if it convolutes the message. Roses in December, the 1982 documentary by Ana Carrigan and Bernard Stone released just over a year after the events took place, humanizes the overriding story of U.S. foreign policy in Central America through the tragedy of Jean Donovan. Released onto DVD by First Run Features and sponsored by the Human Rights Watch, Roses in December skirts political lines to bring home the greater tragedy of the victimized civilians of civil war.
Facts of the Case
For decades, political stability in Central America has been fleeting. Over the years, various nations, for their own interests, would come into these countries to oust an undesirable leader and insert a new regime which, while politically more compatible with the intervening nation, would only make this situation worse. Some of the most volatile times came between 1975 and 1985, when the United States spent countless dollars on funding revolutionaries to fight the feared Communist influence.
Right into the middle of these problems, a young lay missionary named Jean Donovan traveled to El Salvador to aid the church in helping the poor and starving victims of this violence. She may not have realized it, but the church had long been implicated in revolutionary activity above and beyond the humanitarian work. As Donovan became more involved in her work, she watched the leaders of her church assassinated only to be replaced by new leaders who were murdered as well. She became more worried for her safety, but her strength of conviction and love of the people of El Salvador compelled her to see her work through. It was this love that doomed her. On December 12, 1980, Donovan and three of her colleagues, all American nuns, were brutally murdered while returning from the airport. The El Salvador security force stepped forward as responsible for the murders, proving this as another in the series of politically motivated killings ordered by the government. Their deaths, and the many others like them in this ongoing struggle, have become beacons of hope for those still fighting against poverty and oppression.
Jean Donovan, whose story is told at the expense of the other victims of this tragedy, has her character revealed in Roses in December through interviews with her friends and family and through the narration of her letters. From one of these letters home:
The Peace Corps left today and my heart sank low. The danger is extreme. Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children—the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them?
Donovan's dedication to her church and the love she has for the people of El Salvador is astounding. To leave a loving fiancé and a budding career behind and enter a war-torn country is a decision that most of us could not make, and her work is nothing short of phenomenal. Roses in December does an excellent job of relating her tale and showing us that this kind of dedication is not singular. She gave her life for her cause as so many others before her, and the film hammers home the notion that it is from these sacrifices that voices get heard and lives get changed.
Intermixed with this story, which takes up the majority of the film, raw footage of the authorities finding the bodies of these four women is a chilling reminder of the serious nature of these political struggles. The footage is unedited; it pulls no punches and is quite gruesome. Through all of this, the film finally gets to its all-too-brief point: United States intervention in El Salvador has caused and facilitated this kind of violence for years, and half-hearted attempts to hold El Salvador's government responsible for their actions show this better than any one story can.
First Run Features has released a DVD with no frills, but one that is adequate in every way. The full-frame transfer is understandably grainy. It is culled together from multiple sources and would seem impossible to make "clean." The mono sound is clear. The only extras are trailers for other First Run releases that have been sponsored by the Human Rights Watch, some of which look fantastic.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The nature of Roses in December makes me want to say that it is a complete success. Unfortunately, they spend so much of their scant 55 minutes talking about one person that a lot of important issues get lost in the shuffle. I wish that it had spent more time with the political implications of all the assassinations in and around the church during this time, but instead just glosses over them. Their viewpoint is clear, but a few extra minutes detailing these problems would have given the other side more weight.
Four people were murdered in this incident, and they have been lost in the shuffle. I've barely mentioned them in the review so, for the sake of their memory, their names—in addition to Jean Donovan—were Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clarke, and Ita Ford. They did equally important work but the filmmakers decided to focus exclusively on the one only one not a nun.
While the humanistic story is treated as more important than the political one, it does give both sides adequately. I would have liked a little more time added on to talk about some crucial points but, for what it offers, Roses in December is very well done. Hearty, chilling, and intelligent, this is a great example of humanistic filmmaking that deserves to be seen on a far wider scale than it inevitably will.
America Magazine voted Roses in December one of the ten best films about holy men and women. How can I argue with that? Case dismissed.
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