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Poetry and revolution, revolution and poetry. Both expressions were inseparable in the life of Roque Dalton, a Salvadoran revolutionary and poet murdered by his party colleagues at the age of 39.

On the anniversary of his assassination on May 10, 1975 , the National Network of Salvadorans Abroad (RENASE) will show in San Francisco the documentary entitled “Roque Dalton: Let’s Shoot the Night,” by Austrian filmmaker Tina Leisch .

Dalton broke into the Central American cultural and political landscape with new poetry and a refreshing thought. “The poetry for all,” recites a young girl at the beginning of the documentary.

“He did avant-garde poetry, a different language,” said Manlio Argueta, who belonged to the so-called ‘generation of the committed’ poets with Dalton. “He was a pioneer of using bad words in literature, he included the slang of the street.”

In the words of Dalton himself, the idea was to “leave behind the poetry founded by poets such as Pablo Neruda in Latin America, hymn poetry, chant poetry, singing to men and their heroism. But working in another direction, a poetry that instead of singing presents problems, conflicts to make men aware of their problems in the liberation struggle of our people.”

Filmed in 2011 and released last fall, the documentary presents for the first time statements from family, friends and Dalton’s ‘compañeros’ who talk openly and in great detail about his murder.

Among the countless interviewed are the widow of the poet—Aída Cañas de Dalton—and her two children, Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal, poet Nina Serrano, Cuban actress Mirtha Ibarra, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, José Napoleon Rodriguez Ruiz, who was imprisoned with Dalton, commanders, former guerrillas and even who was his 14-year-old girlfriend.

The documentary is Leisch’s third film after a long career in the theater in her country, and is commendable in regard to achieving a fair balance in portraying both the avant-garde poet and the political activist .

It was a very hectic historical period in Latin America in which Dalton lived.

Dalton was killed by his own ‘compañeros’ in the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), one of the political and military organizations that operated in El Salvador at the time. He was killed for ideological divergence and due to turbulent times in which espionage, counter-intelligence, and foreign interference prevailed.

The documentary, co-produced by Austria, El Salvador and Cuba, follows Dalton since he was imprisoned for the first time when he was 24 until his death —through Cuba, a meeting point of young people from across Latin America after the victory of the revolution, Czechoslovakia and Austria.

The significance of this documentary lies in its contribution to the historical memory of El Salvador, a country that suffered a prolonged armed conflict (1980-1992). It arrives at the time when the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the former guerrilla group during the war, begins a second term in the presidency of the country.

The documentary should serve to redress the historical and political maturity of a country in the process of social transformation.

Tina Leisch. Photo Gerald Kerkletz


What led you from Austria to El Salvador?
I arrived the first time in 1988 at the time of the war as an internationalist. I wanted to learn the craft of being a revolutionary. But as a punk anarchist I did not fit very well within the FMLN guerrilla ranks. But I was of use to unions and feminist organizations serving as a shield, accompanying threatened members of the popular movement. As a European journalist I repelled the death squads and murderers.

How did you get to know the figure of Roque Dalton?
I read his poems in graffiti and murals at the National University, got mimeographed brochures with some of his clandestine poems and sisters taught me to sing the Poem of Love and the Third Poem of Love. In secret people said it was his peers who killed him.

How did you decide to make this documentary?
When I learned about the FMLN victory in the presidential election in 2009 it was the first thing that came to my mind: “I need to go back to El Salvador to make a film about Roque Dalton.”

What was your criteria when selecting the interviewees?
I tried to talk to every friend, lover, family member, ‘compañero’ of Dalton. The vast majority received me with great friendship and opened their memories for the documentary. It was a tremendous experience to meet and learn from this wonderful generation, so committed to the struggle for a more just world.

How long did the whole process of making the film and where the money came from?
It was a four-year work funded by the Ministry of Culture and the Austrian state television and the regional government of the province of Carinthia. In Cuba, where Dalton lived most of his years in exile and wrote most of his works and where his widow Aída lives, we had the honor of having the legendary ICAIC (Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry) co-produce the film.

How different do you see Roque Dalton after making the documentary?
Before, I knew him only as a poet through his work, the poor poet he was, the outstanding intellectual, naked lover, chaotic drunk, political prisoner who befriended common criminals, the anti-solemn guerrilla that laughed at everyone and everything, even at his own death.

In conversations with friends and ‘compañeras’ as well as the books I read, especially the wonderful thesis “Las Brújulas de Roque Dalton” by Luis Melgar Brizuela, I got to know the responsible and exemplary father, the profound political analyst, the faithful lover (although faithful to two or three women at the same time).

I learned about the internal fights within the Communist Party of El Salvador and the Soviet leaders of the international magazine for which he worked in Prague; about the complicated conflicts in the cultural world of Cuba; about the strategic debates and ideological conflicts within the guerrilla movement.

“Roque Dalton: Let’s Shoot the Night” will be screened on Saturday, May 17 at 7 p.m., at the Mission Cultural Center, 2868 Mission St. $12 in advance, $15 at the door. The presentation will be attended by one of Roque Dalton’s sons, Juan José.