“The Path of the Shadows” is a Chilling Reminder of El Salvador’s Dark Past

‘The Path of the Shadows’ tells the real-life story of Professor Carlos Mauricio and his harrowing experiences during the civil war in El Salvador. Having freshly returned to his home country after studying in Mexico, the film relates Professor Mauricio’s increasing harassment by Salvadoran government agents. Events rapidly escalate, culminating in his abduction in the middle of the afternoon by one of the infamous government death squads. The professor is ‘disappeared’, taken away for interrogation as the military attempt to get him to confess to being a Cuban-trained spy and Salvadoran FMLN rebel. If he refuses, torture awaits him and all those he cares about.

Told in the style of a docudrama, ‘The Path of the Shadows’ brilliantly includes Professor Carlos Mauricio’s telling of his own story spliced into a dramatized version of the events. Justin Mills, the movie’s producer and editor explained that he got the idea for the structure from the National Geographic series ‘Locked Up Abroad’. Mills had already conducted a series of interviews with a number of Salvadorans who had lived through the period and knew beforehand that the docudrama format would work really well for a film. In particular, he thought it would suit the more personal story told by Professor Mauricio.

For Mills, who regularly visits the country and whose mother is from El Salvador, the film was necessary to show the cruelty and murder that occurred in the small Central American country for over a decade, from 1979 to 1992. He found that people, especially younger generations, were increasingly unaware of the conflict. “There’s hardly any content or films about this civil war where 75,000 people died. It was important to make this film so that audiences can get a feeling for what it was like, for what really happened.”

The project gets a writer and director

Mills needed to make the film and for that, he needed a writer and director. Fortunately, the former Director of National Theater for El Salvador, Baltazar Lopez, was an old family friend and someone Mills had worked with on other small projects. Lopez, both a scriptwriter and director, was perfect for the film. “Baltazar has so many ideas,” Mills says. “He knows how to direct actors and put together a script and he knew all the Salvadoran actors and crew.”

Baltazar Lopez, with his 45 years of experience in directing actors and writing scripts for cinema and theater, was happy to join the project. Although he had worked in film before, it was not a common medium in El Salvador. “For cinema, it’s a little more complicated for a country that doesn’t have a lot of resources for something that is expensive to do,” he says. “It might be easier to get funding for a film that has a distinctly different subject matter, something that doesn’t deal with the reality of the country.”

Lopez was born and raised in El Salvador and in 1980 had fled to Mexico then Nicaragua when the fighting and persecution intensified. Even then he continued to make brief visits to the war-torn country.

The writer and director shared Justin Mills’ desire to remind and educate people about the war. “There is a lot of El Salvador’s history that people don’t know about. In particular, the young don’t know the history of the conflict, the victims, or what happened. They aren’t teaching it in school, they are actually trying to erase what happened.”

Production begins

Although that dark period of history was being avoided in education, government apathy allowed for ‘The Path of the Shadows’ to be filmed entirely in El Salvador. Lopez explains, “The politicians don’t care about acting, theater or art. It is not important to them. When we shot the film, the left-wing FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) were even in power but they didn’t care about the production either.”

Some departments even proved helpful. While Baltazar Lopez was making regular pre-production trips to El Salvador to organize everything, conduct casting and look for locations, he was aided by Director Jaime E. Martinez Ventura of the Academia Nacional de Seguridad Publica (National Academy of Public Security). “Director Ventura helped us out a lot and actually provided the venues and locations for different scenes”.

Except for the American Director of Photography, Michael Potter, the entire cast and crew were Salvadoran. Mills left the actors in the capable directing hands of Lopez, who knew how to get the best out of them. “Before we started filming, Baltazar got all the actors together and gave them a speech, preparing them with the right mindset, trying to elicit more visceral acting,” Mills says, adding, “I just told him what I wanted. I said that I wanted a docudrama style and that I had already filmed Professor Carlos Mauricio’s interview. We just needed to combine them.”

It was important to get things right and that meant ‘The Path of the Shadows’ had to be both entertaining and accurate. When originally writing the script, Lopez was aware of the balance needed. “We didn’t make a documentary. There was an element of dramatization but that doesn’t mean anything was invented.”

Even one of the minor additions to the script, the fictional addition of a love interest, turned out to not be that far from the truth. When Lopez informed Professor Mauricio that he was dramatizing the story and filling in some of the gaps with characters, he mentioned that he had added a girlfriend who fought with the FMLN. Shocked, as he hadn’t mentioned it before, the Professor informed the director he’d had a girlfriend at the time and things panned out exactly as depicted in the script.

On the production side, having a background in videography meant that Mills knew all the technical things that were needed to go into a good film. “I knew what I wanted. Having a quality image means you need a cinema camera and so we used an industry-leading Red Epic camera and rented Leica lenses to ensure everything looked right.” The result is a crisp cinematic feature that can be watched in 5K.

How was the film received?

The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive in a way that has been incredibly vindicating in regards to what the film-makers had set out to do.

For example, to show appreciation to Director Ventura for his help with venues, the movie was shown at the National Academy of Public Security. It is where the national police are trained. Reassuringly, Baltazar Lopez was told by Salvadoran police officers at the screening that they struggled to identify with the security officers in the film. Things had changed in El Salvador. Lopez notes, “The police are now being trained with a different mentality.”

Lopez found there were strong reactions to the film in El Salvador. “The people who have seen it have been very grateful. At the premiere, a young woman told me that ordinarily she wouldn’t believe such stories but she had been so moved by the film that she was going to talk to her parents. She said they clearly didn’t know their history correctly. Others with no political affiliation simply found it hard to believe what had happened in their own country.”

Internationally, ‘The Path of the Shadows’ has proved a huge success, with accolades coming from all over the world. It was selected from over 2000 films to be in the Providence Latin American Film Festival, where it was highly received. Now that the film can be streamed via Vimeo on Demand, the global audience and praise continues to grow.

Most importantly, Mills recounts the reaction of the man the story was based on. “Professor Carlos Mauricio watched the film for the first time here at my house. He cried throughout the movie. It was difficult for him but once it was over he stood and said, ‘This film, this is exactly true to my story. This is what happened to me.’ It was great to know we had done the story justice.”

What’s next?

As well as being a producer, editor and filmmaker, Justin Mills is in his second year at Law School studying to be a civil rights lawyer. This combination of interest in filmmaking and human rights has culminated in ‘The Path of the Shadows’ but he has lots more ideas. “My dad’s side of the family came from Poland and I am fascinated by World War II. I have already interviewed well-known Holocaust survivors such as Irene Weiss, who recently testified in the Oscar Groening trial.”

The reason ‘The Path of the Shadows’ succeeds is the blend of talents and formats. Justin Mills and Baltazar Lopez, aided by a great cast and crew, tell the shocking story Professor Mauricio’s arrest and torture in a visceral and powerful way. The use of interview, dramatization and real footage present viewers with a more immediate and engaging sense of how things were.

As Mills explains, “When it comes to historical events you can make a documentary and learn facts. Or you can read about it and learn what happened. With a docudrama, it is all about getting the feel of what it was really like. It works really well.”

‘The Path of the Shadows’ is available on Vimeo On Demand.


Jason Ward is a journalist and editor.