San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Nica-Tico Iraq War Deserter Inspires Film

The three high school friends used to smoke marijuana and discuss religion and politics at a waterfall outside San José that they called Kamala, after the prostitute in a Hermann Hesse novel.

Now 32 and still “rebellious,” the three friends shared the spotlight at the Miami International Film Festival this month, which featured a documentary produced by two of them and starring the third.

The film, “Dear Camilo,” explores the life of Camilo Mejía, a Costa Rican and Nicaraguan citizen who fought in the Iraq War for six grueling months before he deserted, spent nine months in jail, and became an anti-war activist.

Festivals in Amsterdam and Guatemala have also shown the film, written and directed by Daniel Ross Mix and Julio Molina, who went to high school with Mejía for two years in San Pedro, east of San José.

Acclaim for the film coincides with two milestones this month: The war turned 5 years old and the U.S. death toll reached 4,000. The 2008 U.S. presidential elections have also reopened a debate on the war, now opposed by 66% of U.S. adults, according to a recent CNN survey.

The three friends met in 1991 when Mejía moved to Costa Rica from Nicaragua, where his parents had been prominent in the Sandinista government. Mejía was drawn to Molina and Ross Mix because they didn’t share the xenophobia of other students at their private Catholic high school. Both Molina and Ross Mix’s father, a Vietnam War veteran, grew up in the United States.

The friends wrote and sang together, discussed books and films and “talked about revolution,” Ross Mix said.

“We were really soul buddies,” he added. “We all three had this kind of rebelliousness against the system.”

So Ross Mix and Molina were shocked when they received a letter from Mejía in 1995 saying he had joined the U.S. Army.

He had moved to the United States with his mother and was going to high school by night and working in a Burger King restaurant by day. Mejía said he was enticed by the military’s college scholarships, but he enlisted largely because he was lonely.

“I had no friends and I had no sense of belonging anywhere,” he said. “I felt like I needed to start from scratch and…really get immersed in the culture of this country.”

The next time Ross Mix saw Mejía was on CNN in 2004, when Mejía turned himself in to military authorities after deserting.

Troubled by the slaughter on both sides and rash decisions from his glory-hungry superiors, Mejía had gone AWOL in 2003. (The number of U.S. war dodgers has since topped 25,000, according to press reports.)

The press swarmed as Mejía filed for conscientious objector status, went to jail for desertion, and became an anti-war activist. But Ross Mix and Molina had an edge over the other writers and filmmakers who were telling Mejía’s story.

“I was like, ‘shit, that’s a good story.’ And then, ‘shit, I’m his friend.’ Life has put me in this position,” said Ross Mix, a small, theatrical man wearing earrings and a Kangol-style cap.

Ross Mix and Molina won $100,000 from the Culture Ministry to make the documentary, which includes footage from Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Miami, and features interviews with Mejía’s parents and other immigrants connected to the war.

The next six months brought a flurry of recognition. The film aired on public television in 13 Latin American countries in October. The next month, the film was screened at Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA), which claims to be the largest in the world. More than 3,000 new films applied for 200 spots at the festival.

Building on its success, “Dear Camilo” won best Central American documentary at the Festival Icaro in Guatemala in November.

Monika Wagenberger, a senior programmer at the Miami International Film Festival, heard about the film’s success and asked for a copy. Impressed, she screened it twice at the festival this month.

Just eight Latin American-Iberian documentaries could be considered for prizes, and “Dear Camilo” did not make the cut; it did not take enough “aesthetic or technical” risks, Wagenberger said.

“The strength of ‘Dear Camilo’ has to do with subject matter more than the way it was made,” she said.

The Miami screenings brought Ross Mix, Molina and Mejía together again. Each is now working on separate projects. Ross Mix is seeking funding for a documentary about child labor in Argentina. Molina is making a film about indigenous housekeepers in Guatemala City.

As for Mejía, he speaks and organizes antiwar events as chair of the board of directors of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Mejía is thrilled with “Dear Camilo.”But if he could do things over, he might shift the focus of the story.

“Maybe I’d like to see more about Julio and Daniel,” he said.“Like a coming of age sort of thing where three friends split up and then they come together.”


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