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'The Crazy Life' of El Salvador gangs hits the big screen

Video by FRANCE 24

Text by Sarah LEDUC

Latest update : 2009-09-30

"La Vida Loca" is the last work by Christian Poveda, a Franco-Spanish director murdered in El Salvador in September. Released in France this Wednesday, it depicts the daily life of the youth of Mara 18, one of San Salvador’s most violent gangs.

Wild children, sentenced to a life without hope. They are members of an invisible army that spreads terror in the suburbs of San Salvador. Built on the model of Los Angeles gangs, they are called "maras" and their violence ravages the capital of El Salvador.

For 16 months, Franco-Spanish director Christian Poveda plunged into the everyday life of fifty young members of Mara 18, a gang permanently at war with the rival Mara Salvatrucha. Beyond the violence, Poveda focused on the causes of the malaise.

The director was known for saying that people are not born killers, they become killers. Poveda chose to examine his characters humanely in a 90-minute documentary to be released in French cinemas on Wednesday.

The music of Colombian rapper Sebastian Rocca accompanies this immersion into the "crazy life" of Poveda’s "kids" -- as he used to call them -- who live and kill in equal measures. The director captures moments of levity, parties, births and love stories, inevitably thwarted by prison or death.

Tattooed with coffins in tribute to the deceased, the "mareros" consider death by gunshot their natural fate. Poveda could not escape this fate either. The 54 year-old director, who had lived in El Salvador since 1981, was murdered on the streets of San Salvador on September 2, 2009.

Close contact

Poveda's documentary emphasises the viewpoint of the subjects rather than the director. It is filmed live, with neither comments nor interfering with the course of events.

The genre is new for its distributor, Laurence Bierme. "The documentary is a cinematic form where one is supposed to begin by understanding rather than feeling. But Christian has succeeded in doing the opposite."

Neither moralistic nor self-indulgent, Poveda is able to deliver to his audience raw elements that leave the field open to thought and emotion.

"In the same way that Picasso made us enter the movement at the beginning of cubism, Christian makes us forget that this is a documentary and instead makes us live something," says Bierme.

Aiming for peace

While Poveda remained a spectator, he was not uncommitted to pushing for peace talks between the gangs. Calling for a truce to establish negotiations between the maras, he even met El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes.

"Elle" magazine reporter Philippe Trepiack, who had been preparing to travel to El Salvador with Poveda for the film release, cannot help but think that the director was killed because of this cause.


"It is very rare to film the maras’ side. We can engage in this sort of thing because we’re foreigners, because we don’t belong to the family. But Poveda lost his sense of limits”, said Trepiack. “From spectator, he became actor”.

El Salvador, a country of 5.8 million, is one of the world's most dangerous. There were 3,497 homicides in 2007, according to the Institute of Forensic Medicine. Police sources say there are approximately 15,000 young people aged between 16 and 25 enrolled in the maras.

Filled with "this absolute human loneliness," as noted by Poveda, the film is a denunciation of the over-repressive policies of successive governments.

"Poveda has played a role in the fight for democracy," says Trepiack. "There are a large number of countries, like El Salvador or Mexico, where governments are overwhelmed by illegal cartels. He wanted to prevent the violence from spreading in the world."

Biermer agrees: "Christian was terrified by the idea of violence growing steadily, even in France. To act out is becoming commonplace. He wanted to make young people understand that this is the wrong choice."

The film's release will be accompanied by a series of conferences and screenings in schools throughout France. 

Date created : 2009-09-30