One of the most powerful moments of Imelda is Not Alone, a documentary short directed by award-winning Salvadoran filmmaker Paula Heredia, is seeing a young rape victim handcuffed to her hospital bed accused of attempted murder after accidentally giving birth in a toilet to a child she didn’t know she was carrying.
The scene introduces the viewer to Imelda Palacios, 18, a teenager fighting for her freedom after being sexually abused by her stepfather since she was 12.
“I didn’t know I was pregnant,” she tells a feminist activist who has come to the hospital to speak to her about her case. “I only found out here at the hospital that I had given birth and that the baby had fallen into the latrine.” Thankfully, the child was found alive.
She faces a 20-year jail sentence. The policeman sitting outside the door of her hospital room, assigned to watch her 24/7, is a reminder of the brutal justice applied to women by the Salvadoran state.
In Imelda is Not Alone (Imelda No Esta Sola), Heredia, who worked on the story for four years, crafted a beautiful yet disturbing dispatch from the frontline of the battle for women’s reproductive rights in El Salvador.
But abortion is a crime in El Salvador.
Until 1998, abortion was allowed under limited circumstances, but a draconian law made terminating a pregnancy under any circumstances a criminal offense punishable with sentences of up to 35 years. Since then, over 140 women, mostly poor and accused of terminating their pregnancies, have been jailed.
“I see [the film] as an example of where justice does not work for the poor,” Heredia said during a conversation with LatinaMediaCo about the documentary.
“The state is not there to give the girls access to studies, to protect them from a machista culture, against all kinds of abuse, including sexual,” she said. “It is not there to give the women medical care. But the moment that something like this happens, and they end up with an emergency in the hospital, the same state – that has been absent – comes down on them with all its might.”
“For me (Imelda Palacio’s story) was eye-opening as to where the system is now.”
The documentary also warns of what can happen to all women when their reproductive rights are stripped. “To see a country that had laws [that protected abortion and reproductive rights] and lost them and see the extreme to which they have arrived should be a lesson about what could happen tomorrow in the United States,” Heredia said.
Yet, even in the face of an oppressive state, reminiscent of Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Palacio’s is a story of hope.
The film celebrates the work of the Colectiva Feminista, a grassroots women’s rights organization that refused to abandon Palacio and changed her life. It’s an inspiring tale of the power of organized citizens.
“I also see it as something hopeful because I see people that don’t have to be doing this trying to help one woman,” Heredia said. “They give them emotional, legal, economic, and legislative support. Whatever is needed to get one person out of the hole into a new life.”
“Not all women are going to have the opportunities that Imelda had,” she said. “But I believe saving one woman is better than not saving any.”
The documentary is not Heredia’s first. A native Salvadoran, she has directed Animal Planet’s Toucan Nation, Africa Rising, and The Couple in the Cage, now in the permanent audiovisual collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).
Filming as observational cinema (supported by a beautiful musical score), Heredia takes the viewer with her as she unfolds the dramatic events of Palacio’s young life. We are witnesses, allowed to reach our own conclusions. Using the camera as her narrator, she guides the audience through the ramshackle home that Palacios shares with her mother, Mercedes Palacios, and her stepfather, Pablo Henriquez.
The viewer sees the toilet where Imelda gave birth to a baby girl after feeling ill that morning. She began bleeding heavily and was taken to the hospital, where she was arrested. Then the camera travels inside the overcrowded women’s jail where Palacios was held and the “cueva,” where she slept. It also takes the viewer into the courtroom procedures and witnesses the moment Palacios is set free.
“It makes no sense that it takes so much work to save one girl,” Heredia said. “Something is not right if we have to do all this work and can free one person, or 65 that have already been freed, but this is what it takes for our society to save women.”
After months of incarceration, a judge determined that Palacios couldn’t have acted differently because of the emotional and psychological damage she suffered from years of sexual violence.
After public outrage, the stepfather, 70, was finally sentenced to 14 years in jail for aggravated assault of a minor. Her mother, who claims in the film that she didn’t know her daughter was pregnant (or being abused), now has custody of the child.
Imelda is Not Alone does have a happy ending. We get to see Palacios graduate from high school on her way to college to study nursing.
It is a different person, confident and articulate, not the same frightened young victim handcuffed to a hospital bed. “You see Imelda at the end, and she is a woman that is more empowered and sure of herself. She even speaks differently. You can tell at the end of the film,” Heredia said.
Seeing Imelda Palacios’ transformation, with the help of a group of women that never left her alone, brings to mind the line of one of the main characters in Atwood’s novel: “She is a flag on a hilltop, showing what can still be done: we too can be saved.”