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NewCityNet Fired Up

John Sayles unloads.

By Ray Pride

MARCH 30, 1998:  Maverick filmmaker John Sayles had one of his greatest successes with "Lone Star," but he continues to follow his own renegade path with "Men With Guns" ("Hombres Armados"), a kind of detective story that partakes of magical realism and yet encompasses anecdotes about centuries of abuse visited on the world's powerless by the powerful. Shot almost entirely in Spanish, with scenes in indigenous languages that are just as foreign to Sayles' protagonist, "Men With Guns" has great ambition.

In an unnamed country, Humberto Fuentes (Federico Lippi) is a wealthy doctor nearing retirement. He's never considered himself political, but decides to visit the young doctors he trained to work in the poorest mountain villages. His children and a patient, a prominent general, try to talk him out of his voyage.

"Men With Guns" is a fable set in an unnamed country, with characters and locations given emblematic Spanish names. But the garrulous Sayles has been thinking about the story for years, and had wanted to make it in 1994. "Probably the idea came during the Vietnam war. I wrote a short story in which I tried to get rid of the Western concept of free will. I was thinking about the fact that in wars, often there are more casualties who are civilians than combatants. I tried to imagine people whose life made them, basically, rice people. They had their water buffalo, they had their rice paddy, they had their community and it had been that way for centuries. The Chinese came and went, the French came and went, the Japanese came and went, the French came and went again. Then the Americans came. They were just a rumor, and now men with guns are coming again, you have to do what they're saying."

The title is at once blunt and forcefully distilled. Who are these guys who've come down our street? They're the guys with guns.

"As I was writing it, I made sure that almost all of the incidents are based on events that have happened somewhere else, almost to the exact detail," Sayles says. " A lot of the dialogue in the beginning when Fuentes is being defensive, 'Oh this doesn't happen in our country,' and his son-in -law says, 'Our family has lived with these people for centuries,' that's pretty much verbatim what I heard as a kid in the American South when I went down there. 'They're our Negroes, we've lived with these people and it's only these outside agitators who've blown it out of proportion.'"

But Sayles insists that "Men With Guns" is more than another 1960s-revisited story. "There are things in this movie that come from Bosnia, from the former Soviet Union, from Africa, where a larger concept of government, whether it's colonialism or socialism, is blown away and old tribalisms reappear. But the common factor is that there are people who are just stuck in the middle." So why Central or South America, this fictional country? "I'm just more familiar with Latin American language and culture than those others, so when it came time to set it somewhere, and very specifically thinking about what had gone on in Argentina and Peru and El Salvador and Guatemala and Chiapas, this seemed to be the most comfortable setting for a contemporary story. And I wanted there to be the fable side of it, but I also wanted the investigative side at the same time. So it's an unnamed country, but everything that happens... has happened. I could give you dates. That's the way I worked with the actors. I said, 'You may be representing these people, but I'll give you details. You're playing a person who's absolutely an individual who's been in that situation.'"

I wondered if Sayles thought "Men With Guns" required of a viewer the same amount of knowledge as he had. After all, a lot of American viewers are like Fuentes, removed from the cruel realities of world conflicts.

"Which is one of the reasons Fuentes is the main character, " says Sayles. "You try not to assume too much knowledge. I always try to write things on several levels. So that they work as just a story-this is a story about a guy, strip all the politics away, he thinks he had done something very good. But because he didn't check it out enough, because he didn't know enough, it turns out to be bad for the students he sent out into the world. What I wanted also was that possibility, 'I don't know what's going on, I don't know my country.'" So in effect, Dr. Fuentes is like a detective in a thriller. "Yeah-let's just follow this guy with the possibility that at the beginning they are only rumors and the evidence mounts up. He doesn't find any of his students. So on the most human level, it's just a page-turner, but then drawing a lot of other things into it. If you can make that leap and bring it back to your own experience, that's great, that's the most complete view of this movie, if you can then say, 'This is not just Latin America-how does this apply to me?'"

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