Can a film change Spain?

El silencio de otros turns the tables on the dictatorship.

by Robin Wallis

Last September’s tabling in the Spanish parliament of a proposed new Ley de memoria democrática, reported on elsewhere in this edition, suggests that the answer is yes – a film can affect the political culture of a nation. 

Prime Minister Sánchez seemed to think so when he urged all Spaniards to watch El silencio de otros on its release in 2018The film is arguably responsible for moving public opinion on the legacy of the Franco dictatorship in such a way as to make the proposed new law possible.

El silencio…’s main technical achievement is the way it transcends its documentary genre to become a gripping David and Goliath drama.  By the end viewers will be rooting for – and weeping with – the protagonists as, with understated dignity and determination, they confront a state that denies their right to justice and allows the convenient complicity of the Transition to become a stain on Spain’s democracy.

Part of the film’s authority is that it does not avoid uncomfortable truths.  We see a former prime minister mock those who seek a decent burial for their relatives’ remains, a monarch urge his subjects to forget, pro-Franco apologists demonstrate in city centres, older generations of Spaniards assert the need to look forward not back, and younger Spaniards left baffled by references to the 1977 Ley de Amnistía and Pacto del Olvido, neither of which is taught in schools (‘tampoco nos lo contaron nuestros padres’).

Subtle nuances emerge: there is footage from the Transition period showing left-wing groups campaigning for an amnesty law as a way to free political prisoners – not realising that such a law will shield agents of the Franco state from justice.  The resulting Pacto del Olvido evolves as un olvido de todos para todos, or as one politician puts it, ‘la única manera de poder darnos la mano sin rencor’. 

One speaker shrewdly points out, ‘El olvido comenzó antes de la amnistía: el mundo eligió olvidar abrazando a Franco en la lucha contra el comunismo’.  Spaniards weren’t the first to find it expedient to forget Franco’s crimes.

Scroll forward 30 years: Baltasar Garzón, the crusading Spanish judge whose extradition request nailed former Chilean dictator Pinochet in the UK in 1998, declares the Franco dictatorship’s repression a crime against humanity. 

His investigation is swiftly shut down in the name of the 1977 Amnesty Law.

But one small band of activists won’t take no for an answer.  Marshalled by human rights lawyer Carlos Slepoy – himself a victim of extrajudicial imprisonment and torture by the military junta in his native Argentina – a group of elderly campaigners construct a case that will eventually bring torturers and other oppressors to court. 

Campaigners like José (Chato) Galante, who calmly points out the Madrid flat, not far from his own, where his former torturer lives.  ‘Disfrutaba produciendo terror,’ he recalls, before ruefully concluding, ‘es intocable’ (untouchable).

Or is he?  The drama gathers pace with the entry of an unlikely champion, veteran Argentine judge María Servini.  Beneath her rigour and objectivity the viewer senses a burning identification with the cause of the victims.  The querella argentina that she sets in motion – issuing arrest warrants against regime torturers on the principle of la justicia universal – is based on testimony from the victims featured in the film. 

Slepoy tours Spain holding briefings in village halls to gather signatures for a petition in support of the querrella, but the Spanish state digs in.  In one particularly shocking episode the Spanish Foreign Ministry refuses to allow Servini to receive evidence from Spain via video-link – an EU state blocking a human rights investigation.  An outraged UN rapporteur on human rights demands that Spain’s repeal its amnesty law: ‘las víctimas no olvidan’.  

The ancient María Martín hasn’t forgotten.  Her goal is to cling to life long enough to fulfil her father’s dying wish: to retrieve her mother’s remains from the mass grave where she was buried.  ‘No pido venganza,’ she wheezes, barely audible: ‘nada más que enterrar los restos’.  Her granddaughter points out that the Transition to democracy has not been apparent to María in her home village: the same mayor and the same institutions have blocked her request under both dictatorship and democracy.

Chato, in Buenos Aires to meet Servini, visits Argentina’s Memorial Museum.  How long will it be, he asks, until an exhibition about the Franco dictatorship is possible in Spain?  Until such time, the regime’s victims in Madrid must demonstrate outside the buildings where they were tortured. 

Servini points out that equivalents to the Spanish ‘Pacto’ were attempted in Latin America, but later abandoned under popular pressure. Weight of evidence plus public pressure prompted the courts to act in places like Chile: it could be the same in Spain.  As if to prove her point, she serves an extradition warrant that forces Chato’s torturer to face a judge.  Chato attends the proceedings, imagining the courtroom filled with his friends and family, and reflecting that his rabia – sense of outrage – rather than political principles is what makes him persist.

There are casualties in this story.  Not all the protagonists will see the outcome they desired.  Some succumb, both before and after the film’s release.  Many offer humbling reflections on forgiveness.  Others find reasons to celebrate, like Asunción, whose father’s remains are identified and permission given for his reburial: ‘me voy a morir a gusto’, she declares. 

The narrator prophetically concludes, ‘puede que por fin estemos preparados para recordar’.  The drama moves on to Parliament in 2021.