Roses in December

Michael Buening

Though crackled and dated, this documentary is a sobering, cautionary tale for the festering humanitarian crises of our times.

Roses in December

Director: Bernard Stone
Display Artist: Ana Carrigan, Bernard Stone
Distributor: First Run
MPAA rating: N/A
First date: 1982
US DVD Release Date: 2007-12-11

Technically Roses in December is unimpressive. An hour-long television documentary from the early ‘80s re-released in conjunction with Human Rights Watch, the image and sound are deeply muddied from video disintegration. The graphics are horribly dated and the soundtrack's dippy folk guitar is redolent of PBS kid shows from the ‘70s. These are superficial criticisms, but they were my first impressions.

They were quickly eclipsed by the images and the story being told. Directors Ana Carrigan and Bernard Stone start with a fact. We see bodies being dug up in El Salvador and learn that soldiers serving the military dictatorship have assassinated a group of nuns and a missionary named Jean Donovan in December 1980. And then we are told how the outrage of this simple fact was distorted and ignored by the United States government.

Secretary of State Alexander Haig did little to investigate the matter after initially pledging to do so. Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations said, "The nuns were clearly not just nuns. The nuns were also political activists. We ought to be a little bit more clear-cut about this than we usually are." A frustrated Bill Ford, brother of murdered nun Edith Ford, says, "This mindless policy of supporting these murderers in El Salvador was going to take precedence over any human decency or any factual consideration and I can't tell you how difficult that is for me to accept just as an ordinary American citizen." The State Department charged the Donovan family $3,500 for helping to return her body to the United States.

Having described the reaction of the United States, Carrigan and Stone refute the official charges of radicalism by telling Donovan’s life story. She was raised in Connecticut to a middle class family. She was sociable, rode horses, went to a good college, and got a lucrative job in advertising. Dissatisfied with her life, she became more involved with the Catholic Church and with missionary work. When she told her parents she was going to El Salvador, they didn’t know where it was. She quickly became passionate in her work. In a letter she wrote, "I can't quite put my finger on it, but something inside me is different."

She was immediately submerged in a terrifying situation. The country was embroiled in a civil war and the Catholic Church was one of the few institutes of power that held wide appeal and could speak out against the military government in El Salvador. As a result priests were relentlessly attacked and persecuted. Donovan was attracted to the charismatic Archbishop Oscar Romero and his assassination in March 1980 dealt a terrible blow. He is quoted as saying, "The persecution of the church is a result of defending the poor."

In the moving final act of the documentary, Carrigan and Stone rely heavily on Donovan’s diary and letters to friends to recreate the events and her mindset in the months leading up to her murder. She was torn between staying to assist the destitute, orphaned children and her friend's pleas to leave the war torn country. She said, "I'm trying more and more to deal with the social sin of the third world. It's not an easy question." The longer she stayed, she knew, the likelihood of her death grew.

Produced less than two years after the murder, Roses in December is more detailed on the personal story of Donovan’s life than the United States active support for military regimes in Latin American during the ‘80s. This may have been intentional, but the murder of Donovan and the nuns was one of many outrages in which the Reagan government deliberately ignored inconvenient atrocities.

Robert White, the US ambassador to El Salvador at the time of Donovan’s murder, emerges as the clearest and most insightful voice on these matters. Unfortunately placed at the end of the film, he describes exactly what happened:

The beginning and the end of an intelligent policy in El Salvador was the sending of United States military advisors to El Salvador and huge amounts of military equipment unconnected in any way to improvements in the human rights situation. Once you do that, you give the military of El Salvador a blank check and that's the reason there's no solution to the murder of Jean Donovan and the nuns and there's not going to be any because there's no sanction. The United States will give and give and give because they think that it's a fight between communists and anti-communists, which is nonsense.

Roses in December is an important reminder of the legacy of US foreign policy in Latin America in the '80s, which is scarcely discussed or reported in a mainstream forum. Carrigan and Stone hardly ever resort to rhetorical anger to make their point. The facts speak for themselves. The graphic images of the nun’s bodies force the viewer to deal with the concrete horror of the atrocity.

The United States was not responsible for the death of Donovan, but they helped facilitate it through indirect military support and willful ignorance, certifying their guilt through obstruction of an investigation and smearing the victims as “radicals”.

Unfortunately, this bipolar Cold War mindset has since been appropriated by the current Bush administration to fight its “war on terror”. and we have already seen similar shameful results in Pakistan and the Middle East when a one-size-fits-all doctrine is applied to complex regional problems. Though crackled and dated, Roses in December is a sobering cautionary tale for the festering humanitarian crises of our times.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.