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Note: This post may contain spoilers.

Ballad of the Little Soldier (1984) is a German-language documentary short about the situation facing the Miskito Indians in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas. Co-directed by Werner Herzog and journalist Denis Reichle, the documentary focuses primarily on the Miskito people’s stories.

This short balances two parts, though neither is wholly separated from the other. Through interviews with refugees, women, and survivors, we learn of the atrocities they faced as the Sandinistas burned their villages, looted their homes, and attacked and killed their families. One wounded man describes how he was shot multiple times yet managed to survive. Another woman describes how she lost several of her children.

The more shocking part of this documentary is its showing of the child soldiers and their training to fight against the Sandinistas. The documentary opens with a child wearing camouflage, holding a gun, as he plays a cassette tape and sings the song that plays. Intercut shots show some of the other child soldiers as he sings, and as the song ends he smiles.

Further footage shows the children being trained through drilling, firing live ammunition, and launching grenades. There is something disconcerting about such young children feeding ammunition into an automatic rifle as it fires. Even more disturbing are the men training them as they talk about the ideal age for bringing the children in and teaching them how to fight.

Yet the kids gain an opportunity to speak about why they are fighting, and many of them refer to family members who were killed. They assert that they are not afraid.

This documentary is heavy on voiceover in part because it provides contextual information for who these people are, what they have faced, and what motivates them to fight. One rare tangent recalls his own childhood of being drafted at 14 in Berlin to fight against the Russians. Another rare comment is more pointed: “When I see these kids, I can already them dead.”

As a bookend, the documentary ends with a child singing, the song ending, and the kid smiling for the camera.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh is a documentary blogger and mass media professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.