BAS editor Sander Berg
‘La historia la escriben los asesinos.’
On January 8th, 2023, almost a year to the day after the storming of the U. S. Capitol, rioters in Brasília ransacked the Federal Court, the National Congress and the Presidential Palace. Their aim was to incite the military to oust the recently elected president Lula da Silva, who had narrowly defeated the incumbent ‘Trump of the tropics’ Jair Bolsonaro – a former army captain and apologist for Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship.
The attempted coup in the continent’s largest country does not mean that Latin America risks returning to the nightmare of fascist dictatorships, but it bears remembering just how many countries were ruled by military juntas or strongmen at one time or another in the second half of the twentieth century: Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Cuba (first by Batista, then by the Castros). The most notorious, brutal and murderous among these were the regimes of Pinochet in Chile (1973-1990) and Videla in Argentina (1976-1983).
In the first decade of this century it seemed that the Left was in the ascendancy, with leaders like Chávez (Venezuela), Lula (Brazil), Kirchner (Argentina), Bachelet (Chile) and Correa (Ecuador). There was a real sense of optimism with regards to the prospects of Latin America. I remember reading a book by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera called What If Latin America Ruled The World?
That notion now seems laughably outdated. What is going on? Where has it gone wrong?
Films can be an engaging way to learn about these dark periods in history. One such film is La historia oficial (1985) by Argentine director Luis Puenzo. The script was written when the junta was still in place. Screenwriter Aida Bortnik says that while she was working on the script, there was a car with visibly armed men stationed outside her house. To intimidate her.
Forty years after the end of the dictatorship, the film still packs a powerful punch. It is an emotive story about awakening consciousness, complacency and complicity, and about complicity through complacency.
This is very much living history: that is to say, we still have people who lived through the events and have their personal memories and questions. Once participants and witnesses die, living history becomes exclusively documentary history, only accessible through archived material. This has already happened with the First World War and will soon happen with the Holocaust and the Spanish Civil War. In our lifetime there will come a moment when no one will be alive anymore to tell us how it really was for them.
‘Es como si se hubiera roto algo dentro y no sé si tiene arreglo.’
During Argentina’s guerra sucia up to 30,000 civilians were kidnapped and disappeared. (It is always sinister when the normally intransitive verb ‘disappear’ becomes transitive.) They were held in clandestine prisons, where they were tortured, raped, and sometimes drugged to be thrown out of aeroplanes. Up to 500 infants and young children were stolen and handed over to families who, in most cases, supported military rule. The idea was to protect the State from ‘subversivos’. In totalitarian parlance, Commie parents raise Commie children: the malignant cancer in the body politic had to be excised.
Thus the State, which modelled itself explicitly on the patriarchal family, was kept safe, and its children protected from evil (foreign) influences. But from the early days of the dictatorship, brave mothers and grandmothers, their heads covered in white kerchiefs and brandishing placards with black-and-white photographs of their disappeared children, became a common sight in Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo, outside the presidential palace. They wanted – they demanded – to know what had happened to their children and grandchildren, los desaparecidos.
‘Siempre es más fácil creer que no es posible, ¿no? Sobre todo, porque para que sea posible siempre se necesitaría mucha complicidad, mucha gente que no lo pueda creer, aunque lo tenga delante, ¿no?’
La historia oficial tells the story of Alicia, a middle class History teacher who has an adopted daughter called Gaby. The film is set in March 1983 and the girl is five years old. Alicia is a small-c conservative, middle-class woman and politically naïve, never wondering about her husband’s financial dealings with Americans or the origins of her daughter. One day, Ana, an old friend of hers, shows up. Ana had inexplicably left Argentina some years previously, and Alicia, once more showing her ignorance, had no idea why. They get drunk and Ana tells her how she was abducted, tortured and raped before fleeing to Europe. She also mentions that other women in prison lost their babies to families who buy them and do not ask any questions.
Something begins to dawn in Alicia. From here on, the story takes on elements of Greek tragedy. In the words of Aida Bortnik: ‘Alicia is an Oedipus, conscious that knowledge of her destiny can destroy her, but who is unable to stop.’ She changes her hairstyle, takes up smoking and begins to ask questions. She needs to know who her daughter is: ‘Si no sé quién es Gaby, es como si nada fuera cierto.’ It is as if she wakes up from her slumber. We could say she becomes woke (originally African-American slang for ‘awake’ – to stay woke is to be alert to and aware of the injustice that is happening around you).
A leitmotiv throughout the film is a song about a land of oblivion in which it is easy to get lost and scared:
‘En el país de “no me acuerdo”
Doy tres pasitos y me pierdo.
Un pasito para allí, no lo recuerdo si lo di.
Un pasito para allá, ay, qué miedo que me da…’
Alicia emerges from her lethargy and starts to see things she never saw before because she never wanted to see them. She contacts the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and meets Sara, who shows her photographs of her daughter, who looks a lot like Gaby. The pictures are all she has left of her. And memories.
We never find out for sure whether Sara is actually Gaby’s grandmother, but in a way that does not matter. Alicia knows she cannot keep the truth from her adopted daughter. She confronts her husband, who tells her that even if it were true that Gaby was the daughter of ‘one of them’, it would be cruel for her to lose another mother by giving her away. After all, they raise her properly, don’t they? ‘La estamos criando como Dios manda, ¿sí o no?’
The story of the film is moving and immersive. The acting is excellent. Gaby is wonderful, Alicia wholly believable, Roberto more multi-faceted than might be expected. It is also full of irony, subtle symbolism and motifs. The film starts with muted irony when pupils and staff sing the Argentine national anthem, which contains the lines: ‘Oíd, mortales, el grito sagrado: “¡Libertad! ¡Libertad! ¡Libertad!” Oíd el ruido de rotas cadenas.’ And that en plena dictadura.
Alicia realises the truth. When it was clear that she was unable to conceive, Roberto arranged for her to be given the newborn daughter of a political prisoner. After a violent argument in which Roberto crushes her hand in a door, Alicia leaves him. She had already sent Gaby to Roberto’s parents. The film ends with the girl sitting in a rocking chair singing about the land of ‘I don’t remember’.
Alicia’s unwittingly ironic words to her History class sum up the film’s theme: ‘Comprender la historia es prepararse para comprender el mundo. Ningún pueblo podría sobrevivir sin memoria, y la historia es la memoria de los pueblos.’ And yet, she only teaches the official version of events, shutting down debate and challenging questions like the ones asked by Horacio Costa, one of her pupils, who tells her that history is written by assassins. In due course she changes, and becomes aware of what is really happening around her. The memories will be painful, but they will contribute to the actual, lived-through history of the nation.
A recurrent leitmotiv is that of doors that are slammed shut. At Roberto’s office a co-worker has a heart attack because he is scared of what will happen when the dictatorship falls. Alicia tries to see what is going on, but someone closes the door. Looking for answers about Gaby’s birth, she walks into a maternity ward, where she catches a glimpse of a woman screaming (she is giving birth, but there are echoes of torture chambers). Then the door is shut in her face. When she goes to confession, the priest sides with the regime (‘she should be grateful for the child that will be save from evil influences’) and closes the door on her. And finally, when Roberto beats her, he slams a door on her hand. In this case, the door stays open, akin to a door of knowledge through which Alicia will know the truth, albeit at a cost to her: she has reached the truth through suffering, and will suffer from the truth.
A more subtle leitmotiv is that of the rocking chair. During her confession, we learn that Alicia lost her parents when she was the same age as Gaby. She was waiting for them to come home, sitting in a rocking chair, but they never returned, leaving her feeling abandoned. She sits in a rocking chair when Roberto is arguing with his father and brother. And at the end of the film, Gaby, also abandoned, falls asleep in a rocking chair.
There are many memorable and layered scenes in the film. Let me pick out two. At the start of the film Alicia is bathing Gaby. The girl says she can hold her head under water. When Alicia leaves the bathroom, she tells Gaby to sing so she knows she has not drowned. She sings the song about the land of oblivion. Then Roberto comes home with a birthday gift for Gaby: a life-size baby doll. ‘¡La compraste!’, Alicia cries out. This seemingly innocuous scene is a re-enactment of the arrival five years earlier of the baby Gaby, who had been bought (Gaby’s ‘birthday’ is the day she started her life with Alicia and Roberto). As Ana will say later about her time in the detention centre: ‘Había mujeres embarazadas que perdían allí a sus hijos, y otras que se las llevaban y volvían solas, pero a los chicos se daban a esas familias que los compran sin preguntar de dónde vienen.’ There are other echoes of Ana’s story in the bathing scene. Ana says that she was water-boarded and still wakes up thinking she is drowning.
The other scene takes place at Gaby’s ‘birthday’ party, where there is a magician who conjurers up a white dove and threatens to kill it with a (retractable) needle. Most of the children become distressed, screaming hysterically, but a few boys, toting toy guns, enthusiastically shout: ‘¡Sí, sí!’ Gaby sneaks off to her room to play with her baby doll. Suddenly, the gun-toting boys storm violently into the room, giving her a tremendous fright. Here we have another re-enactment: that of the abduction of Gaby’s mother. Aida Bortnik explicitly relates this scene to pre-natal memories of the girl: ‘I believe that the memory of violence is inscribed in us all from before birth.’ Psychologically this is questionable, of course (at least, so it would seem to me), but poetically it is convincing. The violence of the Argentine State becomes a kind of Original Sin that taints all following generations. (The problem there is that it would take a Redeemer to wash away the sins of the junta, and who might that be?)
Puenzo’s film, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1986, has not lost any of its potency, and deserves to be better known. That is why it is such good news that it is on the Edexcel A Level syllabus, having previously featured in Pre-U. It will provide plenty of material to study. The film is, as I have hoped to show, rich and rewarding, and the example of the Argentine dictatorship is – sadly, upsettingly, anxiety-inducingly – of continuing relevance in Latin America and other parts of the world where autocratic rule is on the rise.
- Aida Bortnik and Danusia Meson, ‘The Official Story: An Interview with Aida Bortnik’, Cinéaste, 1986, Vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 30-35 [downloaded from JSTOR]
- Kerry Bystrom and Brenda Werth, ‘Stolen Children, Identity Right and Rhetoric (Argentina, 1983-2012), JAC, 2013, Vol. 33, No. ¾, pp. 425-453 [downloaded from JSTOR]
- Low Taylor, ‘Image and Irony in “The Official Story”’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 1989, Vol. 17, No. 3 (1989), pp. 207-209 [downloaded from JSTOR]