The story behind the making of Unforgivable is at least as fascinating as the film itself. Filmmaker Marlén Viñayo and journalist Carlos Martínez spent twelve days in the overcrowded San Francisco Gotera prison in western El Salvador: a place specifically for incarcerated gang members of the country's two largest gangs, MS13 and Barrio 18, to serve out their lengthy sentences.
In the midst of this environment where testosterone, violence, and masculinity dominates, several gay inmates lovingly protect each other. The film mainly revolves around Geovany, a gentle boy who is the only prisoner in the cell block who is openly gay. The contrast with the gruesome murders he has committed, which he talks about as if they were at the hands of someone else, could not be greater—especially when he caresses a fellow inmate who is now his lover.
Unforgivable is a title with many meanings. In the eyes of many Salvadorans, the crimes Geovany committed are unforgivable. So is the fact that he is unashamed of loving men, still a taboo in large parts of El Salvador. But Geovany's conversion to Christianity also creates a complicating paradox. For example, the church he belongs to can forgive his gang-member past, but not his homosexuality.
With the film, Viñayo brings us as close as possible to Geovany and his cellmates. We see how they spend their days playing cards and sleeping, but also how they engage in handicrafts and comment on other's outfits. And then Geovany takes a step that may be the hardest in his life, harder even than saying goodbye to the gang he belonged to for so long.
In late July, over six months after the IDFA premiere, we spoke with Unforgivable's director, Marlén Viñayo, about her motivation for making the film, her contact with Geovany, and the reality for the LGBTQ+ community in El Salvador.
How did you meet Geovany? What was your motivation to tell this story?
I had been living in El Salvador for eight years, and I had never been interested in making a documentary about gangs because so much has already been researched, explained, and written about them. I felt that I had nothing new to contribute. But one day, Carlos Martínez, a Salvadoran journalist who specializes in gangs, told me astonishingly about a group of gay prisoners who inhabit a small isolation cell inside a gang prison. I was very surprised to learn of their existence, as gangs are deeply macho and homophobic criminal organizations that will not hesitate to kill a gang member if they suspect he is gay. So the very fact that Geovany and his cellmates were kept alive seemed incredible to me. I knew I had a story that had not been told before, with the unique perspective I had been looking for.
Are you still in touch with Geovany? At the end of the film, he also put in a request for a transfer to an LGBTQ-friendly prison. Was that successful?
Since the last day of filming in May 2019, I have not been able to get in touch with Geovany. We tried several times, but I haven't even been able to speak to him on the phone. What I do know is that his transfer was refused. After the film was shot, the new Salvadoran government took over, implementing a stricter prison system that prevents visits to inmates. All the inmates we filmed were transferred to another unknown prison as well.
In the film, we see how Geovany must answer a long questionnaire to prove that he is gay. As a viewer, the condescending and very intimate questions are often painful to watch. What was it like for you to witness and film this?
I couldn't believe that these kinds of questions were actually asked by a psychologist. It's too absurd for words that the government uses this tactic to officially determine someone's sexual orientation.
We see how difficult Geovany has it as a gay prisoner. What is the situation like for gay men outside of prison in Salvadoran society?
Outside prison walls, El Salvador's LGBTQ+ community faces high rates of discrimination and violence. A recent Human Rights Watch report confirms the Salvadoran government’s own acknowledgment that LGBTQ+ people face “torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, excessive use of force, illegal and arbitrary arrests, and other forms of abuse, much of it committed by public security agents employed by the government.” Many LGBTQ+ people flee their homes, and some 600 LGBTQ+ people have been murdered in El Salvador since 1993.
Specially for Pride, you can watch the short film Unforgivable online for €3.96. Click the link below to stream the film, which is available until August 15.
Want to see more LGBTQ+ documentary films? The IDFA Collection offers a growing number of films that can be watched online for free or a small contribution.