Documentary filmmaker Bill Gentile looks at the role of religion in curbing Guatemalan gang violence in his new short film series, “God and Gangs: Criminal Violence and Religion in Guatemala.”
Gentile, who teaches backpack journalism at American University, says Guatemalan gang members “have two exit routes: a coffin and the Evangelical Church”.
Gentile has been working in Central America since 1977, first as a radio correspondent for NBC/ABC, and then as a photojournalist for Newsweek. He spent time in Nicaragua covering the Contras conflict in the 1980’s, and saw the regional violence mutate into the gang problem that persists today.
In January 2013, Gentile accompanied Professor Robert Brenneman from St. Michael’s College in Vermont, on a trip to Guatemala City to perform research for Brenneman’s book, “Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America”.
Unlike the Catholic Church in the 1970s and ‘80s, which often contributed to violence led by an oppressive, U.S.-backed regime, today’s Evangelical Church is an escape. Gang members who convert to evangelicalism and dedicate themselves to living a pure life are not seen as a “threat” by their cohorts.
Gentile took a multi-faceted approach to promoting his project, posting his series on YouTube and Vimeo, blogging about them on his personal blog (billgentile.com) and posting links on social media. He also uses his “Backpack Journalism” and “Photojournalism and Social Documentary” classes, as well as workshops internationally (including one in Tbilisi, capital of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia) to show and talk about the pieces. The series has become a staple of Gentile’s work both inside and outside of the University.
“Hopefully [the series] resonates with anybody interested in that region, drugs or violence. Many El Salvadorian refugees work here at American University, mopping our floors and taking out our trash. The repercussions are real.”
All three episodes of “God and Gangs” are streaming on YouTube: