Memory, Identity, and Film

Disappearance is a recurring theme, as seen here in M. Photograph courtesy of Gonzalo Aguilar

Blending Past and Present

By Ana Amado

The children of the victims of dictatorial terror in the 1970s in Argentina have used a variety of language andpoetics to demand justice for their parents’ executioners. At the same time, they use these diverse expressions as a form of memorial tribute. Film possesses the narrative potential to translate the “mournful memories” of history and to achieve “magnificent mourning,” in the optimistic vision of French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Several recent Argentine films took their vital energy from this process, as children of the victims dedicated themselves to the task of reviewing the past.

Since the mid-90s, these creative men and women have been distilling their testimonies through heterogenous narratives based on a mix of references, a variety of voices, an accumulation of knowledge. Audiovisual material is perhaps the most frequently used supporting technique, with new combinations and unexpected constructions of ways of creating private biography through stories with strong historic and narrative implications. And this decision to use film (and theatre) as a form of processing one’s own past is what distinguishes this generations of young adults—generally between 25 and 35 years old—sons and daughters of the victims or the survivors of the repression of the 70s. These young men and women are filmmakers, video producers and artists who follow the international growing trend of the last decade to make documentaries that explore issues of memory and identity.

In the group of documentaries dedicated to the consequences of the dictatorship, films made by the children of the victims and survivors have a very particular role, focusing on history to find a voice and a generational space in the context of the present debates about the 60s and 70s in Argentina. Disregarding the contemporary public discourse, the younger generation has chosen the discourse of the emotions instead of the strident political pronouncements that characterized their parents’ generation, as evident in the documentary films made in the 60s and in the first half of the 70s in Argentina. That decade witnessed a surge in collective and social forces; neither actions nor ideas could be linked to individual agents. Representations fostered epic tales—those concerning a heroic guerrilla were the mainstay, with Che Guevara as icon of the generalized revolutionary discourse about armed struggle, while later, “post-history” documentary films bring the individual to illustrate a tragic story-- “post-history” in the sense that it is told from the perspective of the present in which everything seems to have been already told. Today, the revolutionary actions of the parents are reconstructed through an aesthetic act on the part of their children, who portray them as heroic subjects seen through their own narration. Nevertheless, they are resistant to the type of relatively idyllic representation that characterized documentaries from the earlier generation.

In the late 90s and the first years of this century, a series of testimonial documentaries register a critical or self-critical stance by former political militants and guerrillas, who revisit their actions in the 70s with the more structured language of politics as an institution. A similar tendency can be found in testimonial literature. In contrast, the voices in the documentaries by the children recreate the childhood memories filled with the violence of kidnappings, absences, death and images in which the daily perception of threats seems to be associated precisely with the language of politics.

Each film offers direct or indirect ways of revisiting the actions and political discourse of the previous generation. The filmmakers can elect to remain at the margin of the political arguments that led their parents to sacrifice their lives in order to concentrate on the failed circuits of their own wounded memories with the help of a family integrated by their generational and vocational peers. The polemical film Los rubios (2003) by Albertina Carri is one example of this type of film. Other films such as M, by Nicolás Prividera (2007) or Encontrando a Víctor by Natalia Bruchstein (2005), among others, voice quite merciless criticism. Distancing themselves from inherited discourses, each film tries to invent a way of supporting its arguments about what is reasonable or irrational, what is sensible or resolutely subversive in the review of the history of the period of the dictatorships. And in this review and invention of past scenes that are imagined in various forms, the children frame the idea of generations as a narrative and temporal construct (as well as a biological one) of genealogy, as a form of resistance to their legacies and, finally, as a formal operation of timelessness.

The various films are about the absent father or mother, although in the process of remembering, the direct or deflected complaint about the parent’s priorities inevitably appears. The question becomes why the parent followed the path of desire—that of the revolutionary cause, even though death was one of the possible consequences—instead of guaranteeing his or her presence to the children. The viewer thus catches a glimpse of an ambivalent image hovering between an epic profile of parents who are protagonists in a collective historical endeavor and at the same time deserters in the sphere of private emotions.

At the same time, the very existence of the orphans (or bereaved familiars)is precisely the proof that we could call unique, that is, symptomatic, of the traumatic way in which politics intertwines with the language of intimacy and of experience. Au unquestionable example is Rodolfo Walsh’s "Carta a mis amigos," a mix of accusation and personal testimony in which Walsh describes how and why his daughter Victoria, whom he calls “Vicky,” was assassinated by the Army in 1977, as he illuminates the "official" version of the events--a sketchy soldier’s report--from the perspective of the intimacy of the father-daughter relationship. "I have witnessed the scene with her eyes,” writes Walsh soon after his daughter’s death, exchanging time and place with Vicky, within the logic of political discourse brought to maximum tension through the intimacy of death.

María Inés Roqué’s Papá Iván and Albertina Carri’s Los rubios are two films constructed around the quarrel with a father’s ghost. Their formal operations of disassociation and fragmentation give the films a certain aesthetic modernity, although, paradoxically, they reject the all-encompassing figures of political modernity in which their parents participated in the 60s and 70s through their belief in revolution.

These representations can be interpreted as signs of simultaneous autonomy and dependency regarding the filmmakers’ roots and legacies, which end in an ambiguous stance towards the political choices of their parents and their participation in this violent history in which the children, ultimately, became victims. The autonomy has its formal expression in the use of the first person, in the narrative “I” emphasized through sight and sound, the body and voice anchored in the presence of the author/narrator/ protagonist. This autonomy is also expressed through the use of graphics in the form of subtitles, whether used to identify the convened witness—my mother, my father’s comrade, etc.—or to underscore the meaning of the spoken word. In Los rubios, there is a dual presence, that of Carri as narrator and that of the actress who plays her; in M , the most recent film in this genre, director Nicolás Prividera plays the role of the investigator who becomes increasingly enraged because of the lack of answers in his quest to find out the truth behind the disappearance of his mother. Narrative decisions seem to distort the axiom of French literary theorist Roland Barthes about the tendency to gag the “I,” or the option of silence to narrate history (historic narrative is in the third person; as Barthes pointed out, “No one is there to make the statement”).

On the other hand, dependency is revealed in the attachment to origins, in the resurrection of an absent subject that in some cases is portrayed or emerges fitfully; an extreme example of this elision is found in Los rubios in which throughout the entire movie no image replaces the emptiness of absence. Or the subject is evoked (invoked, narrated, explained) by a series of witnesses that replace the absent (dead) person who is unable to testify. Precisely on this point, that of the dead witness, the stories of the orphans carry out one of the historian’s paradoxical tasks, which French philosopher Michel de Certeau describes as “the staging of a population of dead people” (1993:62). Through images, texts or testimonies, literally and metaphorically, characters, ideas, places, events, situations and values are resuscitated within a historic gallery designed by the narrators and populated by a multiplicity of named portraits: the ghosts of the 70s.

The language of theatre has operated in a similar fashion. On the local stage, the first was Teatro por la Identidad (Identity Theatre) which in the past decade has presented a cycle of plays destined to support from the realm of creativity the strategy of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo to find and identify the young people who were whisked off as babies from concentration camps by the 1976 dictatorship.

A noteworthy play now being performed is Mi vida después (My Life Afterwards), which brings together characters from the new generation to express their autobiographical and testimonial “I.” From this starting point, the play forms part of the universal tendency to transform the discourse of experience into artistic work. Personal history is converted into the direct revelation of collective history. Instead of representing characters imagined by an author, the characters play themselves and tell their own stories and those of their parents. Presented as the last link in the Biodramas cycle conceived by theatre producer Vivi Tellas within the government-sponsored space of the San Martín Theatre in Buenos Aires, this work responds to the idea of a cycle precisely to make room for stories from real life.

Director Lola Arias, born in 1976, is the same generation as her actors-characters. She describes her staging and intentions: "Six actors born in the decade of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s reconstruct the youth of their parents through photos, letters, tapes, used clothing, stories and erased memories. Who were my parents when I was born? What was Argentina like before I learned to talk? What versions exist about what happened when I didn’t yet exist or was so little that I don’t remember? Each actor does a remake of scenes from the past to understand the future. As doubles for the risk of their parents, the children wear their clothing and try to present the family history....”

On the border between reality and fiction, in the encounter between two generations, the “literal” interpretation of scenes from the past perhaps points to a way to transform the future. But this “literalness” maintains a distance from verisimilitude through a way of talking without emphasis, lacking all emotional overtones, in which the words appear to flow with less fluidity than manipulating images (they use video on direct takes, home movies, photography), playing instruments (they play the electric guitar, hum melodies, beat drums) or dancing or unbridled corporal play.

As is the case of recent Argentine film by the children of the victims, Mi vida después condenses the questions that come up in one work after another, in diverse forms of expression, about that time, about doubts and allegiances, about the abyss between the generations, about those personal histories that collectively make up history.

Ana Amado is an Argentine essayist and film critic. She teaches Film Analysis and Theory at the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras of the Universidad de Buenos Aires. Formerly a visiting professor at Princeton and Duke Universities, she is author of the book La imagen justa: Cine argentino y política (Ed. Colihue), co-author of the Lazos de Familia: Herencias, cuerpos, ficciones (Editorial Paidos) and Espacios de Igualdad (Ed. Fempress), as well as the author of numerous texts in books and magazines in Argentina and abroad.