‘Fly So Far’ reminds us to think about the injustices in foreign countries

By Samantha Deras, Correspondent

“We are guilty of the simple fact of being women.” 

This quote makes up just one of the many emotional scenes in the 2021 documentary about El Salvador’s strict abortion laws. 

Directed by Celina Escher, “Fly So Far” follows the story of Teodora Vásquez, a Salvadoran woman who was convicted to 30 years in prison for having a miscarriage, which the Salvadoran government deemed an aggravated homicide.

In an emotional, raw, and powerful display, Vásquez recounts the day she lost her baby. While working in the city center of San Salvador, her labor pains grew so intense that she sought emergency help. Vásquez had her baby at work, during which she lost consciousness multiple times. She awoke in the hospital in a weakened state to the news that she had a stillbirth, then the police accused her of aggravated murder and arrested her. 

With moving animations by Louisa Wallström and Roland Seer, Vásquez shares about that night, “I couldn’t stand the pain anymore, so I started making phone calls. ‘My baby is about to be born,’ I said. ‘I can’t stand the pain anymore, come help me.’ The police said that they were coming. But they didn’t arrive. My baby had to be born there.” 

Not only does the film comment on the inequities in Salvadoran women’s reproductive rights—it also highlights the harsh conditions of the prison system. 

Vásquez recalls sleeping on the floor her first night at the prison facility, and for the following seven months after that. She said the food was terrible, the guards would hit her and insult her, and there were only seven toilets for over 50 women.

Vásquez would cry herself to sleep, asking herself, “When will the truth be discovered?” 

It was during her time in incarceration that Vásquez discovered the multitude of other women who were also unjustly serving time for having obstetric emergencies. They found solace in one another, using their sisterhood to overcome feelings of isolation and distress. As Vásquez said, they became a “second family” to one another, especially since many of the women had children on the outside whom they were fighting for and missed dearly. 

After serving 10 years in prison, Vásquez became a spokesperson for a group of 17 other women—which later grew to 23 members—who were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for pregnancy complications. 

Celina Escher, a Salvadoran woman herself, began the film after hearing about the cases of the 17 women. She decided to visit them in El Salvador to hear their stories firsthand.

“I asked Teodora about the idea of making a film,” Escher said. “I talked to [her and the other 16 women] about why we wanted to make this film and why it’s important that the world knows about all of these injustices and human rights violations happening in El Salvador. Then, we started this journey.”

Through a six-year process, Escher followed the lives and stories of the women, especially Vásquez

Throughout the film, audiences follow Vásquez’s journey to freedom as she disputed her case in court. She was eventually granted freedom with the help of human rights organizations. Following her release, Vásquez beams with joy as she is reunited with her teenage son while bidding tearful goodbyes to her incarcerated sisters whom she felt guilty leaving behind.

In an emotional scene later in the film, Vásquez is reunited with her friends who were still serving their sentences. 

For many viewers, seeing a film bring light to such important issues is refreshing, given that controversial subjects such as abortion are often neglected in cinema.

“I found the documentary to be a very personal narrative for the women of El Salvador,” audience member Maya Klaus, a female of Polish descent who was born and raised in America, said. “Concentrating on a small population of women whose human rights are continuously violated as they are criminalized for abortion wrongfully is insanely disheartening. Seeing women face 30-plus years in prison for miscarriages is a harsh reality and in no way dystopian when a country is founded on a broken system especially when Catholicism is in the mix.” 

Photo: Courtesy

With the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, “Fly So Far” is more urgent than ever. As El Salvador is one of the countries with the strictest abortion laws, it shows the possibilities of a United States in which there is limited bodily autonomy. 

The film is one of many in the Bright Lights Cinema Series for fall 2022. It was co-presented as part of Cinefest Latino with the Boston Women’s Film Festival, Roxbury International Film Festival, and GlobeDocs.  

In an interview with The Beacon, Bright Lights founder Anna Feder shares why and how they chose to screen the powerful documentary. 

“It’s an opportune time to have a conversation about abortion access and what that means, where it’s been restricted abroad, and what that means for a possible future for us in the United States given that those rights are being taken away,” she said. 

For some—even those who don’t identify as Salvadoran—the film hits close to home.

“The documentary made me think of my own family in Poland, my younger cousins who are restricted access to a vital procedure, and how there’s little movement forward for those able to get an abortion,” Klaus said. “I have the basic human right to receive such a procedure but many must fight for it, like the 17 [imprisoned in El Salvador].” 

Given the content of the film and its criticism of the Salvadoran government, Escher received backlash for its release and was even shunned from screening her documentary in Salvadoran cinemas.

“The film leaked to Evangelical groups. They made a threatening letter to the cinema, saying that if they showed the film in the cinema they would sue,” Escher said. “Around 13 pro-life Evangelical organizations signed the letter and the cinema had to take down our film, therefore we couldn’t show our film in the cinema. Despite having the certificate from the government, these pro-life groups managed to censor our film.”

However, Escher is not letting this censorship stop her from trying to spread the word about the 17 women and have her film broadcasted in other countries, including El Salvador.

“Now we are making a campaign so people know the film has been censored. The groups who want to keep abortion criminalized are the same groups who censored our film. We can see that they have a lot of power and influence.”

Currently, nine out of the 17 women are still imprisoned today. In El Salvador, 181 women have been criminalized due to the abortion ban. 

Escher states that The Citizen Group for Decriminalizing Abortion is working with human rights lawyers to defend the case of the 17. Also, “Mujeres Libres,” an organization created by Vásquez, helps the women integrate into society following their release. It helps the women support one another—just as they did in prison—through scholarship donations, housing, finding jobs, and getting access to healthcare. It was created for and by the 17.

“I am a Salvadorean woman and the law against abortion goes through my body,” Escher said in her director’s statement. “This is my way of contributing to their struggle for freedom, so their voices resonate beyond the prison walls and to reclaim autonomy over our bodies.”