El Amparo is a fictitious remake of a real event that does not put forward a story of protection as its title might imply . Amparo can also mean help. Perhaps the definition of help is more germane to what the townspeople of El Amparo need after the massacre. But help won’t come from the state as it often doesn’t, especially when it is the perpetrator of violence. Help and justice are concepts with corresponding actions that can take years and decades and centuries before arriving. And while the families of the victims of El Amparo have received some compensation, the impunity of Venezuelan military officials responsible for the massacre affirms a strand of violence and corruption and neglect that the state harbors towards certain citizens and bodies.
Director Rober Calzadilla manages to build delicate confusion, uncertainty, and unresolved horror that feels compellingly true to the type of violence carried out by governments that have established visceraless relationships with their citizens. Cristina Rivera Garza writes that visceraless governments are where the worth of the body has been superseded by profit in a neoliberal economy. “It is the forgetting of the body, in both the political and personal terms, that opens the door to violence. Those who are no longer humans will be the ones who walk through it” (Grieving, Cristina Rivera Garza, pg. 25). And in 1980 , the Venezuelan army murdered fourteen fishers on La Colorada river before staging their bodies with weapons, claiming them to be Colombian guerilleros attempting to explode an oil rig.
Shots brim with sounds as movement fills the frame. The close-up shots and diegetic sounds insert the viewer into the lives of the victims for not long enough as one of the fishers weaves through town, recruiting men with a bottle of rum in hand and promises of payment in voice. The panga seems to defy the logic of buoyancy as men crowd onto the elongated wooden boat. There is a great sequence where Yajaira’s (Samantha Castillo) brother takes one of her hens and the ingredients to prepare sancocho. They peel and clean the plantains and other essential root vegetables for this traditional soup as the panga motors through the river’s murky waters. One last stop is made before La Colorada with a dual purpose: to recruit one more man (who brings his son) and his nets and to drop off the ingredients so the archetypical matriarch can prepare a sancocho that will simultaneously feed them after a long day of fishing and nurse the hangover that a day of drinking will yield. But when the men do not return for their sancocho, concern settles in and begins to spread.
There were two survivors in real life, and Pinilla (Vincente Quintero) and Chumba (Giovanni Garcia) are them in the film. Locked in a jail cell in Amparo—a place to retain them and also protect them from the military —they gradually become aware of the fictitious narrative the Venezuelan government is trying to advance on national television. While the film does not position them as heroes, their suffering confers higher moral status because they are willing to die for the truth . Pinilla and Chumba are the voices that attempt to contest the manufactured history of the powerful and restore dignity to the dead through the telling of the truth. And while they are protagonists, the main character is the town itself—the mothers and sisters and wives and children who grieve their murdered loved ones. The town undergoes a transformation because they have now experienced the horrors of a visceraless government and the definitive ways tragedy changes a community.
Recreating and representing the massacre of El Amparo is an ethical before cinematic endeavor. Media often commodifies the pain of others and delivers it to be consumed. The depiction of horror can be traumatic for groups of people who have experienced similar horrors. And it can rapidly lead to the desensitization of horror inflicted on Brown and Black bodies, often subjects of the commodification of pain . Calzadilla elides the aestheticization and commodification of pain by making the main event, the massacre itself, an ellipsis in the story.
It is a longstanding cinematic technique—especially in the horror genre— to hinge on the power of the imagination to conjure that which cannot be seen but which can be heard. But Rober Calzadilla sidesteps the horror of the massacre altogether. The directorial decision to omit the massacre in image and sound aligns with the reality that plagues many countries where people are disappeared and massacred by a militarized state. This film echoes bearing witness to horror as a void, a lack of knowledge, an absence of facts. It recreates the not knowing that settles in when someone does not show up—a different type of horror. And it is in the state of unknowing that imagination takes over both in the film and real life.
Christina Rivera Garza’s defines horror as the following:
“Horror is intrinsically linked to repugnance…bewildered and immobile, the horrified are stripped of their agency, frozen in a scene of everlasting marble statues. They stare, and even though they stare fixedly, they cannot do anything. More than vulnerable—a condition we all experience—they are defenseless. More than fragile, they are helpless. As such, Horror is, above all, a spectacle—the most extreme spectacle of power.” (Grieving, Cristina Rivera Garza, pg. 2)
There is a line in the film where a pregnant wife of a victim takes the money offered to her by a military man. When community members reproach her for accepting money from murderers, she responds by saying, “You can’t eat the truth. You can’t put it on a plate or in a baby bottle.” This sentiment captures the defenselessness engendered by horror. Power is having the agency to legitimize acts of horror carried out by a visceraless state that inflicts pain and uses fear tactics and money to buy a narrative and sell it as truth. The omission of the massacre makes the symptoms of systemic violence, which are often elusive, visible. Grief and mourning and the precariousness of truth are on display while the unknown horror of why and how the Venezuelan military massacred fourteen innocent fishers belongs to the imagination. The film ends with somber uncertainty as Pinilla and Chumba are taken away.
**El Amparo can be streamed on Amazon.
Cristina Rivera Garza, and Sarah Booker. Grieving : Dispatches from a Wounded Country. New York, Ny, Feminist Press, 2020.
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. London, Penguin Books Ltd, 2003.