Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Roque Dalton: Fusilemos la Noche! (Roque Dalton: Let’s shoot the night)

Roque Dalton’s name is hardly known in Britain, but in Latin America his reputation as a poet is up there with the best. He was killed in 1975, aged only 38, murdered by his erstwhile comrades in El Salvador’s ERP Guerrilla movement.

Today he has become El Salvador’s posthumous national poet. He wrote passionate, at times sarcastic, image-laden works dealing with life, death, love, and politics.
The Salvadorian embassy is to be congratulated for organising the premiere of a new film about Roque Dalton’s life by the Austrian film maker Tina Leisch. It was ably introduced by Roger Attwood, an acknowledged expert on the poet and his work. The film is a more than fitting hommage. 
The only archive footage that exists of Dalton is a few seconds of badly scratched film from a Cuban interview with him. So Leisch had to trace his footsteps meticulously to build up a rounded picture of the man. She finds and interviews not only one of his sons and his wife, but former girlfriends, fellow poets and writers, several former comrades from the ERP, as well as short, perceptive contributions by Regis Debray and Eduardo Galeano.
As a young man Dalton was captured by police forces of the military dictatorship on several occasions and once escaped a probable death sentence when an earthquake destroyed the prison in which he was incarcerated. 
After training in Cuba, he returned to El Salvador and tried to join the main Salvadoran political-military organization Popular Liberation Forces ‘Farabundo Marti’ (FPL). but its leader, Salvador Carpio, rejected his application, saying that Roque's role in the revolution was as a poet, not as a foot-soldier. Because of this, he joined the People's Revolutionary Army (ERP), the military wing of another left-wing faction. 
In his short life he was a prolific writer of plays, short stories, a novel, journalism and many poems. Leisch solves the filmic problem of dealing with poetry in film by persuading the people she talks to, from vendors and students on the street, to former girlfriends and comrades to read some of them, even a policeman in uniform is persuaded to read one on imprisonment and torture.
She follows Dalton’s footsteps from El Salvador to Prague, from Vienna to Havana and in each place sets up a larger than life cardboard-backed photo of Dalton to provoke reactions from her interviewees, and to emphasise his continued presence amongst us. Small elements of animation underline Dalton’s humour and passion for life alongside his earnest politics.
Leisch’s film in many ways mirrors Dalton’s iconoclastic poetical forms, his deep feeling for the language of the streets and his unique mix of tenderness, fun, philosophic curiosity and his outrageous larger-than-life personality. Her film is no hagiography and she doesn’t avoid Dalton’s failings, but in the end the audience is made aware not only what a creative genius this man was, but what a tragic loss his early death was, both for the revolution and for literature. 
In 1955 he and the Guatemalan poet Otto René Castillo founded Círculo Literario Universitario - a group of contemporary writers - which published some of Central America's most recognized literary figures. He also won a prestigious Casa de las Americas prize for his writing
Dalton deserves to be wider known here in Europe and is, alongside his compatriot and fellow communist Neruda, the most deserving of the title ‘poet of the revolution’. I sincerely hope this film will help redress that lack.
Dalton (1937–75) was the major literary figure and an important political architect of the revolutionary movement in El Salvador. Like his friend and contemporary, the Guatemalan poet Otto René Castillo, he chose  to combine a writer’s life with that of a guerrilla fighter and paid the ultimate price: precocious martyrdom.