Seattle’s Smartest Global Women: Dacia Saenz

DaciaSaenz Thailand

International content creator, Dacia Sáenz, knows the power of a well-made film.

After working on a film project in El Salvador, called Unfinished Sentences, Sáenz talked with me on Capital Hill about how visual media is giving the survivors of human rights violations a voice.

The people in her films are real and their stories are moving. Sáenz seeks to inspire viewers do more than just watch films, but to feel compelled to act upon what they see in them.

Why were you in El Salvador?

I have been working with the University of Washington Center for Human Rights and the Center for Human Rights at the University of Central America which is in San Salvador, the capital.

This has been an ongoing project that we’ve been evolving together. We are figuring out what justice and restorative justice looks like for huge communities of survivors of human rights violations that happened during the civil war that they had in the 80s and early 90s.

Basically when the war ended, the UN came in and did an analysis of human rights violations that were reported and concluded that the government had committed 90 to 95 percent of those violations.

Two days later, the government created a sweeping amnesty law.

Who are you hoping to help with this film?

The Center for Human Rights is supporting justice in the community by challenging the amnesty law and helping file complaints of human rights violations with witnesses that are coming forward.

Because you can imagine that when it turned out the perpetrators got off the hook a lot of people who had suffered from these awful atrocities just shut up out of fear.

In 20 years it’s been a long time of no public acknowledgement of homicides and massacres and disappearances and all these awful things. People I think are fed up and they are also getting older and are recognizing that this isn’t being taught in schools and their story is being lost.

What is your role in the project?

As a content creator and a story teller, I am a part of a small team of people that has been working in this small community called Arcatao.

Arcatao is in the Northeast part of the country. (During the war) it was one of the hardest hit. It’s where the poorest people were, the people that were organizing for better working conditions, more humane treatment and better pay.

University of Washington graduate students Dacia Sáenz and Ursula Mosquiera converse with a community member about life during the armed conflict in Arcatao, El Salvador. (Photo by Alex Montalvo)
Dacia Sáenz (center) talks with Ursula Mosquiera and a community member about life during the armed conflict in Arcatao, El Salvador. (Photo by Alex Montalvo)

The campesinos, the people working in the coffee fields, were slaves being paid next to nothing and having chemicals and fertilizers dumped on them from airplanes.

Finally, after decades of mistreatment, they were just done. At that time in the 70s, El Salvador’s economy was 95 percent fueled by coffee exports and only two percent of the population actually saw any of that wealth.

The people in Arcatao were trying to change this. They have been one of the most amazing communities of stories of survival.

A lot of people who fled lived in caves and created these communities up in the mountains. When the war ended, they came and literally excavated their town out from under the rubble and rebuilt.

Did people generally participate fully or have you run into hesitation?

A lot of people I think are really ready to share their stories. One thing that we noticed was that some people were unsure of a camera.

We made the argument that when you are seeing someone speak it is so much more powerful. As an education and outreach tool, it’s more effective, but also it is even harder to mince someone’s words or twist it in any way.

I make a lot of arguments for video because it is what I love. However, I don’t think video can do everything.

You’ve got to be adaptable now by story telling in a lot of different platforms and being able to figure out how to orchestrate those things to work together.

What do you find most exciting about the influence of visual media in today’s high-tech world?

Production used to be just about movies and networks like cable that make content that people just consume.

The internet and all of these new landscapes really made the ability to create content much easier and affordable. You don’t need a $25,000 camera anymore to make something that looks great.

What I love about this new situation, what excites me, is to help create content that inspires and motivates people to invest in an idea and drives them to action.

The exciting thing is that it’s not just about filmmaking anymore. I don’t call myself a filmmaker because I create content. For me, video is a hook to get someone to dig deeper.

It’s interesting that I am not from El Salvador, I’m from Eastern Northern Mexico, and yet I’m committed to this project with El Salvador. It’s become a passion for me.

There is a lot of power in stories to bridge experiences and to connect the dots. I’m committed to the belief that story telling is powerful enough to make change.