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“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?”
I wanted a lot more from Roses In December. The story of Jean Donovan is a compelling one, a nice one, and a heartbreaking tragedy. Interviews with her family and friends are interesting and sweet. Memories of Donovan are always good ones, and it certainly seems like she was a wonderful person. But I wanted to understand a little more about her death, and a little less about her. Or, at least, more about her death. You see, Donovan was an American lay missionary who was murdered, along with three nuns, by a military death squad in El Salvador in 1980. The American government, in bed with the regime in El Salvador, paid lip service to finding her murderers, and even charged her family money for helping to facilitate the return of her body to America.
This is, to me, the most interesting part of the story. Why were the American government officials so reluctant to do anything about the tragedy? Why did they help the El Salvador government basically cover up the crime? What about the three American nuns who were executed with her? Who were they? Why were the hit-squads in the country targeting religious figures? What was behind the civil war that started the whole thing? Who were the bad guys in El Salvador, and what was their role (likely or confirmed) in the rape and murder of these four women?
We get lots of pictures and video of the corpses, which certainly adds to the heartbreaking nature of the story. But we get about two minutes spent on the American government’s refusal to help. We have no real context for the civil war, and we don’t really learn what it was about the religious people that made them targets for these military death squads. We just get a nice biography, about a nice woman, who happened to be involved in a politically motivated murder in Central America in late 1980. The synopsis on the back of the DVD box says that the film is a “powerful indictment of U.S. foreign policy in Central America”, but so little time is spent on it that it comes across as a pretty weak indictment in the end.
As a one-hour biography, Roses In December works just fine. And Jean Donovan has a devastating and powerful story. I just wish it was fleshed out a lot more, and that her murder was put into more context. To learn about that event, click here. To learn about Jean Donovan, watch Roses In December. The film is part of the Human Rights Watch DVD box set, released July 21st by First Run Features.