“The reality of their ordeal becomes unreal to us through the very process of trying to illuminate it.” Diana Taylor, Disappearing Acts.
Before the outbreak of the first world war, Argentina could claim to be the world’s true land of opportunity. In the 43 years leading up to 1914, GDP had grown at an annual rate of 6%, the fastest recorded in the world. The country was a magnet for European immigrants and ranked among the ten richest in the world. It never got better than this. Its standing as one of the world’s most vibrant economies is a distant memory and political stability has plummeted alongside. If Argentina appeared to enjoy stability in the pre-war era, its history since then has been marked by a succession of military coups. The first came in 1930; others followed in 1943, 1955, 1962, 1966 and 1976.
Between 1976 and 1983, the last dictatorship took hold of Argentina, and began El Proceso de Reorganización Nacional, simply, the process; a structured attempt to rid Argentina of political dissidents through forced disappearance. Los desaparecidos is the name given to the disappeared, who became the subject of protests started by Los Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (pictured above) which took place weekly until 2006, the group consisted of mothers and grandmothers committed to finding those missing and putting pressure on the Government. Around 30,000 are believed to have been taken, some drugged and pushed out of planes into the Rio de la Plata, others held in detention inside secret prisons, including pregnant women, the fate of their children to become illegally adopted by military and political officials. The junta relinquished power after defeat in the Falklands War, being succeeded by the democratically elected Raúl Alfonsín. Steps taken thereafter towards achieving justice and understanding within Argentine society were consistently derailed by an unstable political climate. In 1985, the Truth Commission report ‘Nunca Más’ (Never Again) led to the jailing of nine former junta leaders. However, 1986 saw Alfonsín pass a new law, Full Stop, which upended investigations. One year later another law, Due Obedience, meant that those who were seen to be “following orders” could not be prosecuted. Finally in 1990, Alfonsín’s successor, President Carlos Menem, released the imprisoned junta leaders.
Argentines were forced to live in passive accommodation, women ran into their torturers and rapists in supermarkets. Veteran officers hosted their old comrades for parrilladas at their country chalets, toasting one another as heroes who had saved the nation from Communism.
Lucrecia Martel’s ‘La Mujer sin Cabeza’ (The Headless Woman) opens with an ambiguous car accident and from then on we watch as Veronica slowly dissociates from her surroundings, revealing a complex culture of collective amnesia within Argentina. The problem that Veronica should have gets taken care of by family members, and despite the details that emerge, there is no investigation in the film. Yet, there is tension all throughout which informs its purpose: it transforms what is usually the background into the foreground and blurs the lines between them. The film achieves a connection between the lower class in modern Argentina and those disappeared by the junta by highlighting usually small or unseen activities and amplifying them to the audience. It argues class as a learned behaviour, with each action as one that reaffirms our position in the world, offering a careful consideration which we can apply to ourselves about the interactions we take for granted.
Workers in the film are often faceless or headless in the frame, or shadowing past windows and through corridors, characterised as ghosts that we know to be there but try to ignore. When Martel talks about the dictatorship she calls for a more individualistic response to trauma, saying “a lot of people decided they didn’t want to see, they didn’t want to know what was happening. And now the same process is occurring, but it’s in relation to poverty.” Ghosts are like unfinished business, and by making the past and present so inseparable, Martel captures this feeling with an almost documentarian like quality which she attributes to her style of camera use. She stresses that the camera is a “spectator,” which is realistic in a way that is naturalistic rather than meticulous. It is what gives the film a haunting feeling, a constant unease that we must give the past more attention because of how urgently it informs the present, researcher Jo Labanyi summarised this process saying that “haunting requires the present to correct the past at the same time that is establishes an affiliative link with it,” and this is Martel’s great success.
The institutional structure of Argentina, a male-dominated society rife with corruption and cronyism since the 1930’s, the infamous decade – a period of alarming levels of electoral fraud, has been permeated by characters alike to the problem solvers in ‘La Mujer sin Cabeza.’ Their presence recalls the Patria-obsessive generals of the last junta. Diana Taylor writes in Disappearing Acts that to them, “their entry into culture marked the origin of culture,” the leaders placing themselves directly opposite those who were against them and brandishing them as “subversives,” claiming “non-human non-subjects do not exist in juridical systems.” ‘El Proceso de Reorginización Naciónal’ was a not only a political battle but a cultural one, vowing for the consciousness of the Argentine. The well-connected and incestual characters that Martel creates mirror the perversion without suffocating the issue or diluting the meaning. They persuade acceptance and inaction, emblematic of those who seek to shutdown the conversation around historical memory.
In opening up this dialogue, we have to guard against the potential to dehumanise, any representation, real or unreal, can suffer this fate. Even photos from Los Madres y Las Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo, carried around on marches, and the bones recovered from forensics teams of the disappeared fail to truly transmit atrocity. When something disappears it leaves that shadow that cannot be filled again, neither the icons nor the remains can reproduce what was there. This is why the suggestive approach of ‘La Mujer sin Cabeza’ is so effective, it doesn’t revisit the past just to stare, or congratulate itself, or to assure us that the past is gone now, and we don’t need to worry. The need to look into the past is to acknowledge the lack of both collective and individual understanding, the cloud looming over a country full of memories.
A similar haziness has descended over Spain, depicted in ‘El Laberinto del Fauno’ (Pan’s Labyrinth) directed by Guillermo del Toro. It is an account of the post-dictatorship era in Spain which revisits directly the past, and opts for a high level of realism with period costumes and extreme violence. As an allegorical tale we can read the film in this way; Captain Vidal as Franco, Ofelia as Spain and her brother as King Juan Carlos. Ofelia dies for her brother, and keeps her integrity, defeating Captain Vidal and paving the way for a New Spain to emerge, showing that sacrifice and dignity will allow for growth and prosperity. We can also read the hand-over at the end of the film of her brother from Captain Vidal to the Republicans as a neat way of showing the transition from dictatorship to democracy.
Doing so places ‘El Laberinto del Fauno’ within the lineage of films that look to show the dark side of the past to convey that we should pursue a detachment from it. It shows the transition from dictatorship to democracy, which has been summarised by the “pacto del olvido,” a divisive pact described by some as not a choice to forget, “but a decision to not let it affect the future,” whereas detractors criticise the masking of the fact that the transition was affected by Francoist actors. The latter reading ignores the very real threat of the country devolving into more violence, at this point it was necessary for Spain to push towards stability and align itself with the European model. Firstly this is because of the fragility of the political landscape, but also because of the many Spanish exiles who wished to return to a country which mirrored the places they had remained in until Franco’s death. Only after King Juan Carlos had outlined his wish for a new democratic model and appointed Adolfo Suarez could Spain seek the stability it needed. An issue with this stability though, is the fact that it provided a global sense of relief but not an individualistic sense, in that it may have relieved tension for the nation but not its people, who read it as an unjust pursuit of a future for Spain.
Director Guillermo Del Toro can be characterised as a monster-maker – both real and unreal. From his filmography, we can understand that as a Director he seeks to mostly create dense and intricate worlds which are populated by meticulously crafted monsters, with a taste for mythical and historical accuracy. It is then no surprise to see such a high level of magical realism employed in ‘El Laberinto del Fauno,’ however the use of extreme violence which mostly comes from Captain Vidal, and is highly realistic, is a departure from his usual style of filmmaking. The use of torture in the film is particularly redundant, a former detainee under the Argentine junta wrote in ‘Lexicon of Terror’ that male guards “presented a truly sickening combination—the curiosity of little boys, the intense arousal of twisted men,” conditions across Spain were likely similar at times. The power that comes from this phrase is suggestive far beyond what Del Toro’s scenes could achieve, which end up becoming a parody of torture with more in common with Reservoir Dogs than the reality.
It is this approach to showing violence which many call unapologetic and brave that is the major downfall of the film. Over the course of the film, the normalisation of violence and torture increases, but it only functions to show how different the past was to where we are now, and in doing so offers relief when it ends. This feeling of relief closes the conversation about historical memory; it sums it up and gives us a complacent outlook towards the present. The scenes which take place in the magical world are much more effective in portraying terror, they have a grotesque unwatchable quality that is physical and unique enough to explain the atrocity without seeking to replace it. The hyper-real violence goes through that counter intuitive process of becoming less real to us by being highly realistic, too much of it and we’re spoiled and inundated, the more suggestive and illusory work employed is far more operative at conveying horror.
The use of period costumes in ‘El Laberinto del Fauno’ aligns the film with more traditional Spanish cinema like ‘¡Ay Carmela!’ – a film directed by Carlos Saura which is similarly functional as a brief historical guide to the Spanish Civil War, but neither offer nuanced critique of the dictatorship and post-dictatorship period. What is surprising about the similarities between the films is the huge difference in age between the directors, Saura born in 1932 and living through the Spanish Civil War, and Del Toro born in 1964 (and also not being Spanish.) We would expect that later generations would be able to make work that did not suffer from a lack of distance from the material, which in the case of ‘¡Ay Carmela!’ is inevitable; Saura experienced both sides as a child during the Civil War.
Del Toro’s inability to resist placing the detachment between the past and present is forgivable, and maybe expected. It is much harder to consider that individual response to trauma, which truly tries to delve beyond national and political ideas, towards a place where rehabilitation can take place after atrocity. Some prefer not to dwell, to move on, look towards the future, leave things alone. Soon a motion to remove the body of Francisco Franco from the Valle de los Caídos will be debated, with calls for another Truth Commission, despite any protestations there might be, the past is urgent.