Interview with the producer of “The Seventeen (Fly So Far)”

Following the screening of the film, “The Seventeen (Fly So Far)” during the October film festival held at Kino in Lund, we conducted a follow-up interview with the film’s producer, Mónica Hernández Rejón. Mónica is a Mexican film producer, director and programmer based in Sweden. The interview is transcribed below:

Can you walk us through the background of the film’s production? How would you describe the process in terms of ease of access to relevant people and material?

Celina Haydee Escher, Director of ‘The Seventeen’, ‘Fly So Far’,  started her initial research for the film in 2016. It was during this time that she made the key contacts in El Salvador that would later be instrumental in the film’s creation: with the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, Doctors, Activists, human rights lawyers and experts on the abortion issue.

During the first year, we received support from the Swedish Film Institute and some other local funds in Sweden. Then, we established a co-production with Chimbolo Films, a production company in El Salvador, as well as Sugar Rush Productions, a sister company in Sweden.

Thanks to the funds we raised both in Sweden and internationally during the first few years, we were able to finance four shooting trips to El Salvador and two trips with Teodora in Sweden.

A key element throughout the process was the director’s engagement and passion for the project. She travelled back and forth from El Salvador to Sweden and has worked really hard to make a great film with talented film crew members and artists from different backgrounds and nationalities.
Undertaking an impact campaign to free the women.

During filming, Celina contacted different organisations that helped to create an impact campaign to contribute to the women’s struggle in El Salvador. An important element has been the trust and good relationship that the director created with Teodora, her family, and her fellow inmates.

All of them have also been very engaged with the project from day one; and have collaborated with the film crew in the best possible way despite the difficulty of their living conditions and other challenges that they were going through.

Their strength and solidarity were a guiding light for us during the production process.
Finally, I want to mention that we received huge support from different feminist groups, individuals, and human rights organisations both in El Salvador and internationally, during the production as well as the distribution processes.

Why did Celina decide to start this project? What did she hope to achieve?

As Celina has stated in previous interviews, her main motivation is a strong need to tell these women’s stories.Making a film was her way of contributing to their struggle for freedom and to achieve the right every woman has over their own body.She also wanted to pay homage to the many girls and women who have lost their lives because of the laws in El Salvador.

With the film she hoped to denounce the injustice women were facing, to give the women the cinematic space to tell their own stories, and to open a dialog in the Salvadoran society about the right to choose and that abortion is about healthcare. She wanted to shed light on stories about women who are survivors of all kinds of violence and oppression, as well as to inspire the audience to engage with this issue by taking action and supporting The Seventeen.

The film is a tool for women in other countries where abortion is criminalised and stigmatised. It is also a tool for human rights and feminist organisations already working on the right to choose for yourself.

How has the film mattered to the women’s rights movement in El Salvador? 

We believe the film and the events following the film will be very positive for the women’s rights movement in El Salvador.We expect that the discussion will continue and expand through the upcoming months and years and that this will help the feminist movement in El Salvador to change the anti-abortion laws and make the right to choose possible for all women, in all means and conditions. Our goal is to contribute to the cultural process necessary for questioning the stigmatisation of abortion in the Salvadoran society, open up the space for dialog about the right to choose, create awareness and motivate the international community to put pressure on the Salvadoran State to stop criminalising women and secure their fundamental right to health and provide safe and legal abortions. This is not only criminalisation of women for being women but also a criminalisation of poverty and lack of access to healthcare.

To achieve this, the film has been presented as part of an Impact Campaign that the director and the film’s Impact Producer, Lourdes Gil Alvaradejo have designed and are promoting in many countries.

Is there any available data on the average number of women imprisoned annually by authorities in El Salvador on abortion charges?

Between 1998-2019 there have been around 181 cases, which means around 9,05 cases per year. However, in the last 3 years around 14 women have been incarcerated.

Impact Campaign and The Seventeen

Could you elaborate more on what the impact campaign is and its aims?

“Fly So Far” is a film that goes beyond borders as the issue is relevant and urgent in many countries. We want the film to be a tool for an impact campaign that creates change and raises awareness about the issue of reproductive rights and women’s rights. We want to open this discussion not only in El Salvador, but also in other Latin American countries, as well as in the USA and Europe, where many organisations are already working on transforming the landscape of reproductive justice. We hope to do this by creating a network of solidarity with grassroots organisations, national and international organisations, universities and reproductive health clinics who are ready to take action.

Throughout 2021, the director and Teodora have participated in webinars about the abortion situation in El Salvador, in collaboration with the organisations previously mentioned as well as others, such as SheDecides in the USA, Center for Reproductive Rights and RFSU in Sweden, to name some of them.
During the film’s production and impact campaign design, the director was in close contact with the Citizen Group for Decriminalisation of Abortion in El Salvador, a feminist and human rights organisation working with human rights lawyers defending The Seventeen women and working to release them. Amnesty International has also been a great ally. Our collaboration with the Citizen Group for the Depenalisation of Abortion in El Salvador and Amnesty International, has consisted in organising and participating in events and fundraisers for the incarcerated women.

Our main partner in El Salvador is Mujeres Libres, which is the organisation for and by The 17. It is driven by the freed women who are working together outside prison to provide other recently released women in El Salvador with a safe space where they can cover their basic needs. One of their main projects for the reintegration process of the 17 is to create a safe space for the women who need a safe place to live. With Mujeres Libres we want to develop a plan and strategy on how international support could help and benefit them directly.

Could you highlight some of the success stories achieved as a result of the impact campaign?

The film has already succeeded in bringing attention to the issue of abortion internationally, in the USA, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden, as some of the major newspapers and radio and tv channels in Sweden have showed interest in discussing it, and the popular news show conducted by Amy Goodman at Democracy Now! interviewed the film’s director during a film festival in France. Internationally, Celina has been interviewed by relevant media such as Women and Hollywood. Under the auspices of the Costa Rica International Film Festival, Planned Parenthood organised a panel discussion with the protagonist and director.

On September 28th, the International Safe Abortion Day, a special screening was organised by RFSU, the biggest pro-choice, reproductive rights organisation in Sweden, followed by a talk with the director and a presentation of Creativista Kollectiva, an activist latinx collective, which made a special performance about the right to choose.

In Mexico City, the film has been projected at Guadalajara International Film Festival and DocsMx. There the director has started a dialogue with Marea Verde Mx, the biggest pro-choice feminist organisation in Mexico. There have been online conversations with the Institute of Simone De Beauvoir, Marea Verde Mx and Gire.

How can people in Sweden and elsewhere in the world get involved?

We invite the audiences in Sweden and other countries to follow the organisation Mujeres Libres on social media and reach them to contribute to their projects. Amnesty International has also been a key actor in the campaign for the women in El Salvador and can provide further information on how to get involved and what are the possibilities to contribute in the struggle. Amnesty International has a petition that everybody can sign to urge the Salvadoran government to liberate the 17 and to change the abortion law.

Could you provide any updates on Teodora Vasquez’s case (and the seventeen)?

The Seventeen movie

Since her release Teodora has campaigned for women rights and to release the other women in prison due to obstetric emergencies. She has also created the organisation “Mujeres Libres” in collaboration with other women from The Seventeen who have been released like her. Their goal is to create suitable conditions for them and the rest of The Seventeen to reintegrate to society as they get released. The project of reinsertion into society consists of, among other things: having a safe space, finding jobs, facilitating scholarships so they can finish their studies, and helping with psychological and physical therapy.

The film is dedicated to Manuela, a woman who lived in very vulnerable conditions and was convicted of aggravated homicide after suffering an obstetric emergency. She had a miscarriage due to a linfoma cancer. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison and died of cancer, deprived of her liberty and in inhumane conditions. She left two sons behind. Manuela’s is currently before The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which will decide if The Salvadoran State is guilty of all human rights violations committed against Manuela. Manuela’s case is the first complaint of this type to reach the Court. It has exposed the danger generated by the absolute criminalisation of abortion and it will be taken to further discussion soon.