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'Angle' on Killing Fields

July 6, 2006 By:
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Ricardo Pollack
It is part of America's most troubling trade deficit: illegal El Salvadoran nationals deported back to their homeland equipped as bullies with bullets, trigger-happy killers having learned their trade on the tricky streets of Los Angeles.

Made in America, murderers in El Salvador.

Named after the 'hood they hung out in in L.A., where 18th Street paved the path for their moral madness, this gang shoots straight for the street, where turf wars are grounds for 10 killings a day.

These contemporary killing fields are the focus of "Wide Angle," opening its fifth season July 11, at 9 p.m., on WHYY-TV12, with "18 With a Bullet."

Think of it as a gun chamber symphony, in which the cacophony of killings are mood music for a nation swamped with gang swagger and a poverty so rampant gang membership may be the only way to pay life's dues.

Director Ricardo Pollack spent eight months shooting this street theater of interviews and intense imagery, where former illegal Angelenos have taken to the devil's trade on the treacherous trail back home.

While the number 18 may have beneficial significance for "Our Crowd," it numbers death and defeat for the Salvadorans who tattoo its lifestyle on their souls.

If the States served as a farm system for the older gang members, mentored in menace some 2,000 miles away, their view of L.A. remains smog-free. "They see the United States as a way out. It is very much their dream to go back to the U.S.," reports the British-based Pollack, whose ancestry is Chilean Jewish.

If making documentaries is his dream job, Pollack probably never dreamed "18 With a Bullet" would be the physically nagging nightmare it turned out to be. "It was the toughest thing I've ever made, tiring, physically exhausting," he says.

And yet, he says, the nation is not on its last breath.

Whereas the "hopelessness grinds you down," there is the memory of some mirth, where the "kids could be so charming."

But life is no lucky charm for these Salvadorans, "kids masquerading as adults." This is not the marvelous masquerade of "The Phantom of the Opera"; this one cloaks the ghosts of death and destruction one bullet away.

And yet ... revolvers don't replace religion, faith displaced by fury. "They all talk of belief in God; they could not believe it when I told them I was an atheist. They thought it was funny I didn't believe in God."

Believe Pollack would have been even more a source of mirth and mystery had he told them he was Jewish. "They wouldn't know what that is."

What they did know, says the director, is that the Lord forgives war lords, notably these punks who picked off their targets on the streets.

One gang member, doing time for murder, thinks God has time in his eternal plan for people like him. "I asked him how could he reconcile his beliefs with the fact that he committed murder," recalls Pollack. His response. "He said, 'God forgives me.' "

The killing fields are unforgiving, so forgive Pollack for the lingering feelings of melancholy he had after leaving them. Yet "this didn't affect my general view of life."

His room with a view -- his camera's pathfinder -- is on to other terrain these days. In the past, he's focused on "55 Days: The Fall of Saigon." Would he find time to set his sights on the Mideast? "Actually, I've done a small amount of work in Israel," and wouldn't mind returning, while recognizing "that as a secular Jew, I find I'm a bit more defensive about Israel than I should be."

In "18 With a Bullet," offense is considered the best defense as even gang members don't escape beatings from their own group. Internecine intrigue?

"Afterward," says the director, "they afford the gang members a sense of belonging." Pollack's documentary belongs to that special section of fine films whose impact lingers long after their screening, detailing a distant land where death doesn't take a holiday.

"It is very interesting," Pollack understates of this travelogue of treachery, "to be in a culture where murder is not considered illegitimate." 

 

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