Cleaning Up a Dirty War

The maker of a wrenching film on El Salvador's days of terror has a St. Louis link

Feb 20, 2002 at 4:00 am
Gail Pellett holds a degree from a vanished department -- the sociology program at Washington University (M.A. 1973) -- dedicated to the study of society, so it makes sense that she would write, direct, produce and narrate a documentary about a society from which human beings routinely disappeared: El Salvador in the early '80s.

Her film Justice and the Generals tells the story of the (U.S.-financed) dirty war in El Salvador through recent -- indeed, ongoing -- efforts to expose the cruelties of that era and make those responsible pay for their crimes.

The crime that takes center stage is the rape and murder of three American nuns and a lay missionary in 1980. The misery of the poor, the violence of the military and the teachings of liberation theology radicalized many churchpeople in El Salvador, and they were targeted much like the peasants whom they helped organize. But the brutalization of these American citizens raised a political stink for the Salvadoran government, which imprisoned five low-level national guardsmen so it could continue to siphon U.S. funding.

The families of the murdered women never believed that the buck stopped with these five men. Pellett follows the families' struggle to get an answer from the mum's-the-word U.S. government and, finally, to press a civil suit against two Salvadoran generals who had relocated to Florida. Archival footage of these men, who had directed death squads, blandly vacuuming their swimming pools and tending their lawns provides a surreal moment.

For the most part, the film is bracing. But there is no way to document a dirty war without showing war at its dirtiest. Pellett shows enough carnage to dramatize this grisly era, including footage of the women's exhumation. "I missed this moment," she says. "After I left St. Louis, I went into radio. I was working in Beijing when those bodies were disinterred." She may have missed the moment, but thanks to her, others will remember it.