Ballad of the Little Soldier
In his five-decade-long career as a filmmaker, Werner Herzog has been called an iconoclast, a humanist, even a madman. But even his detractors would probably balk at thinking of the German as an 'opportunistic lackey for the CIA' - which, in 1985, was how US scholar and indigenous-rights activist Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz described him in a pamphlet she distributed outside the San Francisco screenings of his documentary, Ballad of the Little Soldier.
The 45-minute piece has at its centre the Miskitos, an ethnic group then caught in the line of fire between Nicaragua's left-wing Sandinista government and the US-backed rebels, the Contras.
What drew Ortiz's ire was the villagers' on-camera testimonies about government soldiers beating people up and burning houses. At a time when the Contras were largely seen as the bad guys Ballad was a piece of counter-propaganda in support of the rebels, she said.
To look at Ballad that way is to miss the point. While the documentary relayed the villagers' anti-Sandinista sentiments, its true raison d'?tre only reveals itself towards the end of the film, when Herzog and co-director Denis Reichle zero in on the young Miskito recruits of the Contra-trained Misura armed group. Their instructor says children are the best recruits because they are 'pure minds'. 'That means you can brainwash them?' asks Reichle, to which the soldier replies, 'Yes, you can brainwash them.'
Ballad of the Little Soldier is a melancholic reflection about the Miskitos, whose lives were ruined by the intrusion of Spanish missionaries, British colonialists and US-backed militias.
Which, again, proves Herzog's standing as a humanist rather than a lackey.
Ballad of the Little Soldier is one of four short films screening in the ifva festival's Werner Herzog showcase, Mar 18, 7.30pm, agnes b. Cinema, Hong Kong Arts Centre