The Houses are Full of Smoke (Allan Francovich, 1987)
It isn’t news to anyone anymore that US foreign policy in the latter half of the 20th century consisted of the CIA implementing their Game Theory 101 textbooks across the globe, trying to advance the USA’s perceived interests. The specific details behind this complex network of nefarious events can always do with more elucidation however, which is what makes Allen Francovich’s three-part expose of the tumultuous history of US intervention in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua an invaluable model of historical record and investigative filmmaking.
The events across each of the three episodes are symptomatic of the political instability afflicting Central America: revolutions, coups d’etat, mass poverty and injustice, guerilla groups, the political awakenings of the indigenous population and the campesinos, and their eventual brutal quelling at the hands of reactionary military juntas. All, more or less, with the covert backing of the US. What makes Francovich’s film a fascinating historical tapestry is his access to talking heads of all hues of the multi-faction spectrum. From victims candidly recalling the horrors of torture camps, to reformed contra assassins, via Sandinistas, CIA men and ex-ambassadors, they’re all here and Francovich somehow got them to open up. In one interview tinged with self-delusional irony, a Guatemalan statesman, irritated by the role of missionaries trying to better the lot of the peasants, attempts to spin the teachings of Christ in his favour – “The meek shall inherit the world he said, but not the lazy”.
The films go unnarrated; we’re thrown in at the deep end, forced to make sense of inevitably complex situations from varying accounts of political machinations, harrowing bloodshed, murder and torture. Francovich uses the sheer variety of testimonies he’s collected to create meaning with his editing strategy. Through juxtaposed cuts, opposing views are often contrasted, with the contradictions making us constantly doubt the veracity of what we hear, especially of the official versions. One example comes during footage from a Reagan press conference, essentially a PR exercise to convince hearts and minds of the horrors enacted by the guerrillas in Nicaragua, and hence of the necessity to back the military government and their contras in a fight for ‘freedom’. But the conflicting interviews with which Reagan’s words are inter-cut give a completely contradictory side of the same tale.