Roses in December, a 56-minute documentary completed in 1982, commences with footage of the brutalized bodies of the women being exhumed from a shallow grave. These women were non-combatants killed in the early stages of what would become an especially brutal civil war between an American-backed junta and leftist rebels that would leave tens of thousands dead. Filmmakers Ana Carrington and Bernard Stone could have gone a number of different ways with this documentary. They could have focused on the murders and subsequent investigation, or the bigger political picture of the civil war, or the lives of these women as a whole, but instead they chose to make their story more intimate by focusing almost exclusively on the biography of the only lay missionary among the murdered, Jean Donovan.
Told through interviews with family and friends, and through her letters and diary entries, the picture that emerges is of a young woman pulled between two worlds. On the one hand, Donovan grew up in a wealthy Republican family in Westport Connecticut, completed a master's degree in economics, earned a handsome salary as a management consultant for a major accounting firm, was engaged to be married to a physician, and wanted to raise children. On the other hand, she was also a devout Roman Catholic who felt a missionary calling to help the desperately needy.
After working with the poor through her local diocese in Cleveland and feeling called to do yet more, Donovan took a leave of absence from her job at Arthur Anderson in 1977 to go to El Salvador as a lay missionary to help the destitute. At the time of her arrival, government-backed paramilitary death squads were murdering suspected leftists. In the face of these assassinations, the Roman Catholic Church called for non-violent political activism by the poor and recognition of human rights by the government. Consequently, the Roman Catholic Church leadership increasing became a target of the death squads. Numerous clergy including the head of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador, Archbishop Óscar Romero, were assassinated in the period following Donovan's arrival in El Salvador.
The situation continued to deteriorate during Donovan's time there. Two close El Salvadoran friends were murdered leaving her home, and she was frequently called upon to bury the dead, nurse the injured, and care for the orphaned in the escalating conflict. Donovan felt increasingly torn between fleeing the horrors of El Salvador for the comforts of the United States, and staying on to do what she could to alleviate the suffering. In the fall of 1980, she wrote this to a friend:
"The Peace Corps left today and my heart sank low. The danger is extreme and they were right to leave... Now I must assess my own position, because I am not up for suicide. Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine."
A couple months later, she was murdered.
The first hints of the American government's cover-up were already on display in this 1982 documentary. The incoming Reagan administration initially promised a full investigation, but then went on a press offensive against the slain women. The United States Representative to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick declared "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." There's also footage of Secretary of State Alexander Haig speculating that the women may have been killed "in an exchange of gunfire" when they tried to run a roadblock. Taken together these statements paint a picture of gun toting revolutionary nuns shooting it out with government forces. The truth of course was far different.
The most sane voice on behalf of the United States government is that of outgoing Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White:
"The beginning of 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. See once you do that, you give the military of El Salvador a blank check, and that's the reason that there's no solution to the murder of Jean Donovan and the nuns and the reason there's not going to be any cause there's no sanction. The United States will give and give and give because they think it's a fight between communists and anti-communists which is nonsense."
Ambassador White's words were prophetic. A United Nations investigation later confirmed what was only suspected when Roses in December was made: the torture, rape and murder of Donovan and Sisters Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clarke and Ita Ford was carried out by the soldiers on orders from their superiors. The UN report further concluded that the subsequent investigation into the heinous crime was impeded by high-level Salvadoran and American officials. In the end, only the five soldiers following orders were charged for the attack; the Salvadoran government continued to assassinate non-combatants including Roman Catholic clergy; and, the American government continued through the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations to provide military assistance to the Salvadoran government.
Roses in December is recommended viewing.