The story gives voice to an 11-year-old child – hardly the type one hears about in news reports about war. Torres’ alter ego Chava is left the man of the house after his father abandons them during the beginnings of the 12-year civil war, becoming provider and comforter to his mother, sister and baby brother. "Innocent Voices" follows Chava through the daily struggle of survival and an attempt at holding onto childhood innocence through things so many of us take for granted: games with friends, dinner with grandma, a first kiss. Each day could be Chava’s last, especially as he approaches his 12th birthday – the point at which all boys are conscripted into the national army battling the FMLN peasant rebels.
Torres himself fled El Salvador and the army, arriving in the United States in 1986. He made it through high school and attended the University of California at Berkeley before deciding to move to Los Angeles to become an actor. During this time, he was reunited with his own mother and siblings.
Demonstrating some of the gustiness that it must have taken to survive in his rural village of Cuscatazingo, Torres took the opportunity to pitch his script to director Luis Mandoki during a commercial shoot they were both working on in late 2002. The director was immediately gripped by such a truthful drama and agreed to work on it with Torres. It was a gut-wrenching process for both men, but one that each of them will readily admit has altered their lives and hope of future work for the better.
Let's start from what's happening with the film now and go backwards. I know you don't have much experience in this regard, but did distribution seem like a really difficult process, like this was going to be a really hard film to sell?
You know, the funny thing is that North American distribution was the last one we got, because Lions Gate had sold it pretty much in every territory that’s out there. And Fox, who distributed it in Latin America, had no problem selling it there.
Even in El Salvador itself?
Oh, yeah – El Salvador was the first one to go. That was the first commercial presentation we had, actually, back in December, and it was a huge success. The United States was toughest for us. I know Lawrence [Bender, producer and distribution partner] was growing grey hair and pulling out his grey hair because he’s never had this much problem selling a film before. [Laughs] But the story itself…a lot of people were afraid of that and just didn’t know how to market it or just didn’t think the message in it was American enough, or… There was always one or two different reasons why they wouldn’t do it.
Do you think it had anything to do with their fear that it would be interpreted as anti-American in this day and age of xenophobia and terrorist fear?
Yeah, yeah. There were a couple of comments that way because of the US involvement [in El Salvador] and the story I narrated.
You brought up Lawrence not having a problem before, and he’s dealt with movies that have had a tremendous amount of violence in them. It’s just odd that something like this film, which is really evocative in a very honest way, would be harder to deal with than something that’s made up but even more violent.
It’s not so much about the violence as it is a tough subject. It’s not an easy movie to watch, I know that, because most of us – and I include myself because I’m that way – we don’t wanna feel for the most part. We just wanna go about our lives and do our thing and if you make us feel we might turn the other way because it might bring up stuff about ourselves that we’re not ready to face yet.
Sure. That’s the difference between art and entertainment, I think. In this country, film is equal to entertainment, and when you go to a movie you want to escape, you don’t want to feel.
Yeah. And I understand people – I mean, I’ve done it. You know, when I break up with someone, the first thing I do is I go to the movies! For those two hours, man, I don’t feel a thing. [Laughs]
That’s very true. Tell me about escape and finding an outlet – did you, even as a child back in El Salvador, gravitate towards acting or writing as an outlet, or when did you discover that for yourself?
Well, not in El Salvador – there was no room for that. I didn’t know acting; I went to the movies once and I saw “E.T”, that was it. But as far as the escaping, yeah, I’ve always written, but most of the time it was poems to my little girlfriends, you know? [Chuckles] The escape for me at that time, for example, was like what you see in the movie very briefly: we got under the beds and we created a whole circus out of nothing, in the middle of shootings most of the time. And I would act stuff out to make my brothers laugh. Sometimes when there was no war we’d still create circuses inside of the house, and we’d invite our friends and I’d make them pay a nickel; you know, I’d just create silly little acts of stuff. But it wasn’t ever, “Oh, there’s the acting world!” as a passion; it wasn’t like that. But when I got to the United States at 13 and there was this amazing fountain of cinema it was just interminable – I was watching three movies a day every weekend .
When you got to this country, I assume you were working to survive, but did you also find your father or other relatives? How did you progress from that point to where you are today?
I came to live with an uncle; he knew guys that were in the same circle – the El Salvadoran community is very small so everybody kind of knows where everybody else is – and my uncle knew where my father was. I saw my father again, I tried living with him; that didn’t work out so I went back to my uncle and my uncle became kind of like my second father in that sense. I worked and went to school at the same time; I went to high school and then I went to college. And at that point the itch for cinema had already been born.
Did you have immigration problems going to school or getting work? I know immigration politics are so difficult sometimes, so how did that work out – was it easy to just kind of slip into society?
No, it took me a long time because I didn’t become legal until 1997. I got here in 1985 so that was 12 years later. I had political asylum first but that went away when the war ended. Then I went into the amnesty program and they dropped me out of that when I turned 21 because they approved my case on the date of my birthday when I turned 21. Then I couldn’t apply under my mother anymore, I had to do it on my own, and then finally my father stepped in – he finally came through for me. He was a citizen by then, and I applied under him.
So was there a lot of doubt many times that you might not be able to stay here?
You know, not doubts… [Chuckles] I’d always find ways. The tough one was when people would ask me for my work permit, but I had a social security number I had obtained from my very first political asylum. I kept that number and I kept using that and because I mastered English fast, they assumed that I was born here, so most of the time they wouldn’t ask me, and the ones that would I kind of would drag it out so they’d forget.
All this brings up something that occurred to me when I was watching the film: Your story is similar to that of lot of immigrants – immigrants from the very beginning of this country, all the way to now. I think that’s something else this film reiterates, which is not to lose sight of the reasons why people come here and are crafty with the system, so to speak, the way you were. It’s not out of greed or laziness, it’s out of just desperation to live, I suppose.
Back to the movie itself, what kind of prep had you done to write this script? Did you study screenwriting or what else did you do besides watching three movies a day?
[Laughs] Well, when I was in college I would watch three movies on Saturdays and three movies on Sundays and depending on what kind of great movie was during the week, instead of doing my homework I would go to the movies. But after that I worked in production for like seven years. I did everything from being a PA to an assistant coordinator to an agent’s assistant to casting to assistant to actors and to producers. During all that time I would read scripts. I never took classes; I just one day sat down and did it.
Yeah, which is probably the best way to express yourself –
Yeah! You know, it’s hands-on experience and that helps so much.
Are you doing more writing these days or are you still acting? Are you trying to do both? What’s your big goal?
[Laughs] You know, I’ve said this to people: “If it has to do with movies I’ll sweep the set!” I don’t really care because I just love film so much. But now I’ve got two more things that I wrote and one of them I’m finding money for; I’m producing that as well. And there’s another one that I’ve co-written with a couple of guys from New York and that’s finding money as well. And I finished my book, which is based on the movie.
Were you writing the book at the same time as the script or did it come after?
It came right after we were editing. In the middle of editing we needed to come up with a new voiceover for the movie – you know, the voiceover you hear at the beginning with the little boy and throughout the film. That came out of what the book is now, so it’s all the inner thoughts of the child. And this was crazy but literally in order to write the script and then rewrite during shooting and relive that whole process, I had to bring myself back to being 12 again. It was at that point when I started writing what became the book, and so all those inner thoughts and fears and fantasies started coming through, so that’s where it takes off from.
So it was even deeper catharsis and therapy.
Yes – much, much deeper. In the book I even ask forgiveness from my friends for having left them at the river and things like that.
While screening the film around the world, have you encountered more El Salvadorans that went through it, and do they feel it’s important to show their children? Are they thinking it’s something that they want to share with the next generation or is it something more for those of you who were there?
Well, I’ll give you an example; this is one of the many that we’ve had and I think this can help answer. There was this woman in Santa Barbara, when we showed at the film fest, who got up after the movie was done and we were there for the Q&A. She couldn’t speak, she was crying so much, but she finally was able with a broken voice to say, “I want to thank you because I am here with my nine-year-old boy, and for years since I’ve tried to tell him what I went through but he couldn’t understand until today. Now he’s going to really, really appreciate his life, appreciate what I’ve done to be here, and now he’s going to study and he’s going to focus so he never has to go through that himself.” That’s the example that we’ve had everywhere we’ve gone.
When I saw the film at a screening back in February, a couple was there with their little girl - she was very young, about six or seven - and afterwards Luis was talking to her, asking her how she liked it. I don’t know if the parents had expected the movie to be as intense as it was or even if they didn’t care and wanted their child to share in it since the father was from El Salvador. But she was affected by it, and it made me think that we should give kids more credit than they get.
Oh, totally! You know, they showed us that in Mexico. The actual audience that we never targeted – because of the content – was children. And yet we were seeing that children as young as seven, eight, nine years old were actually coming to see the movie, and then they would come back and bring their parents to see it. We met kids that had seen the movie thirteen times in the theater! We’d ask them why and it was because it made them think that the life that they had was actually good. Other kids said they found a little hero in Chava, that they could relate to him. Kids are amazing in that sense!
That is incredible. Maybe it’s better that they see something like this than all the crap that’s on TV.
Oh, yeah! And Luis’ son – who is like nine now – after he saw the movie for the first time, Luis said that he stopped playing Nintendo and he threw away all his violent games. It’s crazy; we don’t understand how they think but that’s the way they react.
Well, maybe that’s the way we all need to react.
Were you a part of the shooting process very intimately? Were you on the set a lot or how did you participate?
Yeah, it was a
honorable, beautiful thing for Luis from the very beginning. When somebody
came to direct this, I wanted somebody to have me be involved with the
whole thing. But without me even bringing
Well, it was a big fight – a literal fight because there was a point where Luis and I threw chairs at each other, literally! [Laughs] We had become friends at that point but the frustration of him knowing that I wasn’t telling everything…because when you live through that you don’t want to talk about it; it’s the last thing you want to do because you feel ashamed, you feel all this crazy stuff. And we were coming to a stop because there was something I wasn’t telling. For us it was never a choice if we should make a Hollywood movie, actually, the challenge was telling the whole truth, just really telling exactly how it happened, and that doesn’t usually happen, either. Not “How do we make it more impactful, more Hollywood?” This way it’s “How do we make it more real?” And that was the challenge, to actually bring those emotions out so I could open up to tell it.
It seems like there’s been overwhelming support but have you encountered any opposition when you’ve screened the film?
Yes. [Chuckles] From the Salvadoran government, for one – they didn’t like the fact that I told my side of the story, which was that in my town, the abuse was coming from their side. They had a problem because they said that it wasn’t a balanced story, and my reaction to them was, “You tell your side! I will watch that movie and support it!” You know, it’s a story, that’s all it is. And on the other side we’ve had a couple of Americans that have come up and said that we’ve made the United States look bad. I think a lot of that comes from not really educating yourself because some people actually denied in front of us that the U.S. ever does that – that they never get involved in foreign affairs. We were just thinking, “Okay, in what cave have you been living?” But it’s not about pointing fingers, about saying “You’re wrong!” It’s just a matter of stating what’s happening. It depends on where your conscience is.
The problem is when you lock yourself into any kind of idealism. I mean, one of the things I never do is I don’t get political because when I do, I lose focus on the fact that this particular story is being told for the benefit of children who are still going through this like we did, and I can’t get into that because then it’s about other people’s idealisms and mine. And what happens to the child in the meantime? While we’re having this conversation there’s a child dying right now.
Exactly. You can transcend that and look for the very basic right and wrong of a situation and just always do what’s right and try never to do what’s wrong.
Right. If I have a wrong in this, it’s that we say all the time, “Have your wars – go ahead, do your thing if you need to. But just leave children out, come on!” That’s not even a question. But then, how do you do that?
Exactly. It’s not that easy, not that black and white. I noticed at the end of the credits in the “special thanks” section, Gabriel García Márquez is right at the top. Did he have some involvement?
Well, Gabriel García is a good friend of Luis and he was one of the first people to see the movie when we’d just finished the editing and it wasn’t even complete yet. But he came and saw it; he and his wife stayed and talked for four hours after because he was so impressed by the film. He wrote us this beautiful letter afterward and he gave us permission to use this letter for publicity. So we’re going to publicize the letter, talking about what this movie did for him – how he completely lost the sense that he was watching the film and just went in and went up and down with the children, running around with them. It’s a beautiful, beautiful letter. So Luis thanked him for that in the credits.
Yeah, I imagine that must have been a nice boost of confidence to have. [Laughs]
Are you kidding me? I grew up reading him, I’m a huge fan of Gabriel García Márquez, then here’s this guy writing about something I wrote. I’m going, “What?! My god, could somebody slap me and let me know this is real?” [Laughs]
What more validation as a writer do you need, right?
Yeah, it’s a beautiful thing.
Do you feel like with everything that’s happening now – with things like García Márquez's praise and other kudos the film is getting and your new projects in motion – that it’s worth what you went through? Is the good that you’re receiving is making up for the bad that you had to suffer through when you were a child?
[Sighs deeply] You know, it’s hard for me to enjoy this ride so much because I know what we’re trying to do with it is not just to entertain people, but it’s also to awaken just like I’ve been awakened. But there’s a joy of opportunity; for example, I went to my old high school a week ago and I was able to speak to a group of students there who had seen the film. And I saw it in their own little eyes that they were able to get inspired by it and that there’s actually the possibility for them, too, to do something that they’re dreaming of doing. That in itself gives me joy. But then to enjoy the whole Hollywood thing…I can’t. That’s not even a question – I just try to remain focused on what we’re trying to do with it, you know?
Right. And personally it doesn’t seem as though you’re out for fame and fortune, either – you just want to make more art.
Yeah! It’s what life has chosen me to do and I just wanna continue on doing it. If I can make you think through what I do, then I’m happy.