Print Friendly and PDF
only search

Latin America: Filming the past, framing the future

About the author
Rob Cawston is openDemocracy's production manager. He has written on film, literature, issues of transitional justice and Bob Dylan.

In his play Pablo, the Argentine playwright Eduardo Pavlovsky asks a question that has haunted the people of Latin America: "What's the use of always going back to the same thing? Do we, by going back, reinvent anything? Why always go back to the past?"

Across the continent attempts at dealing with a traumatic past have often created more questions than answers. Crimes have been left unpunished or simply forgiven, perpetrators unaccountable or untouched by the hands of justice, and victims simply ignored or forgotten.

State of Fear, What is it Worth? , and The Dignity of the Nobodies recently screened at the 2006 London Human Rights Watch film festival

For more HRW coverage see Preti Taneja on two South Asian films, Amu and No More Tears Sister: An Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal, and a still from James Longley's film Iraq in Fragments as openDemocracy's "image of the week"

Latin America has certainly earned its reputation as a land blighted by inequality and impunity. A rash of military-led dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s gave way to democracies kept shallow by authoritarian hangovers and the headaches of brutal neo-liberal market reforms. The recent "swing to the left" – with Evo Morales in Bolivia and Michele Bachelet in Chile joining the presidential ranks of Chávez and Lula – may provide an aspirin of hope but the wounds of the past have been slow to heal.

Three films from Latin America screened at the recent Human Rights Watch film festival in London – State of Fear, What is it Worth?, and The Dignity of the Nobodies – seek to re-examine the national pasts of Peru, Brazil and Argentina. Delving back into historical events they each move towards a Vergangenheitsbewältigung (a coming to terms with the past) and an attempt to restore dignity to forgotten lives.

State of Fear: twenty years in Peru

In the opening statement of Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, its president Salomón Lerner Febres asserted that the people needed to learn "who we were and how we must change". Pamela Yate's superb documentary, State of Fear, takes up this mantle, reviewing the twenty years of Peruvian history that Quechua speakers call the Manchaytimpu (the time of fear). Between 1980 and 2000, nearly 70,000 Peruvians died at the hands of both Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and the Peruvian military in its attempt to repress Professor Guzman's terrorist movement. President Alberto Fujimori led Peru into a virtual dictatorship as he exploited the fear of terror to undermine democracy with the discretionary powers of anti-terrorism legislation.

State of Fear
Stills from "State of Fear"

Blending historical narrative, archive footage and personal testimony from across the broad range of social and political actors, State of Fear manages to portray the experience of those living in a condition of perpetual fear. There is an attempt to provide a multi-faceted history, and we hear from an indigenous tribal leader through to Fujimori's spokesman, but three testimonies in particular stand out.

First, a Shining Path loyalist watches a tape of herself twenty years earlier marching, waving a flag and shouting slogans. She still seems caught up in the movement sighing "that was time well spent" and praising Guzman's vision for a new society born through violence and destruction. Second, a child soldier kidnapped by the terrorist group explains how killing soldiers "became like an addiction" before breaking down in tears as he remembers hearing the screams of his brother as he was murdered. Third, in another deeply moving scene a university student recounts how she was kidnapped, raped and sentenced in a hooded military court as the child conceived from her attack sits passively by her side.

GuzmanAbimael Guzman

Where the film works best however, is in portraying how Peru became a state ruled by and through fear. As one truth commission member states: "we exchanged democracy for security" in the belief that emergency laws were necessary laws. We learn for instance that when President Fujimori dissolved congress in 1992 he held a 70% approval rating. The rule of law was rapidly dismantled in the name of protecting citizens from fear, and there is excellent footage of the "first media dictator in Latin America" addressing the nation from state-controlled television. People were left unprotected under the law and many found themselves in "the wrong place at the wrong time". In the late 1990s there became more wrong places and more wrong times as the country was hijacked by "a spider web that controlled the full power of the state".

Just like the Peruvian truth commission, Yates's documentary seeks to write a new chapter of official, truthful history about these two decades in Peru. Throughout the film there is always a tension between the authorial voice of narration and the events depicted. But this is twenty years of history in ninety minutes of film: selections are inevitably made about what to tell and what not to. Ultimately, the film succeeds as both a dramatic retelling of history and a warning for other nations seeking to balance the demands for security with the founding freedoms of democracy.

The Dignity of the Nobodies: from victimhood to activism in Argentina

posterPoster for The Dignity of the Nobodies

The fear of terrorism only became real to most Peruvians when Shining Path began to target upmarket areas in the capital, Lima. Divided geographically into three distinct zones, Peru is also divided along economic lines. Many poor indigenous communities in the jungle or the Andean plains are simply ignored by the more affluent population of the lowlands. Many didn't care about photographs of "poor Indians" caught in the crossfire.

Just as State of Fear gives voice to those previously excluded from a national narrative so Fernando Solanas's La Dignidad de los Nadies (The Dignity of the Nobodies) provides us with elegies of the subaltern poor of Argentina. His documentary examines the social conditions and protests surrounding the collapse of the country's economy in December 2001. We are invited to spend time with ten "nobodies" in the walled shantytowns of Buenos Aires, to learn how they lived through and survived the crisis.

Solanas provides us with a simple on-the-ground perspective, letting us into people's daily lives and struggles. This may be the reason why the narrative voiceover by the veteran director contrasts so sharply in its didactic and slightly condescending tone. But the contextualisation is necessary to place the "nobodies" in a wider system that seems to protect the ‘Haves' and leave the ‘Have Nots' with even less – if they are acknowledged at all. We meet people living in a hospital corridor for two years and the doctors struggling to cope. Then there is Chipi, the chef feeding up to 200 people with only onions and water. "But how?" asks an incredulous Solanas from beyond his handheld camera. "Just add more water", comes the simple, smiling reply.

Some of these segments are over-long and there are no neat stories here. But in telling these long-silenced narratives and providing the "nobodies" with a voice, Solanas is attempting to restore their dignity and sense of worth within the wider social sphere. As one of the picketers protesting in the cacerolazo over the lack of work tells the camera: "work is dignity … they are destroying all dignity".

The dignity of the nobodies
Stills from The Dignity of the Nobodies

We are also shown the hope and will for change. The arc of the film moves from victimhood to activism, from the story of Martín Galli, shot by police during a street protest to the factories reclaimed by workers and the women landowners fighting back against auctioneers. In an attempt to disrupt the sale of their land the women gather to sing the national anthem, drowning out the proceedings with the ironic words, "Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! Hear the noise of broken chains, see noble equality enthroned…" As one man is arrested his wife shouts at the federal prosecutor "this is not 1976!"

The 30th anniversary of the start of Argentina's military dictatorship has brought hope that justice may finally be served. But it has been thirty years. No one has been held accountable for the disastrous management of the Argentine economy that led to the 2001 collapse, and it is likely that the same legacy of inequality and impunity infecting Argentine democracy will continue into the future. The nobodies of Solanas' film however continue to fight on; for food, for work and ultimately for dignity. As the farmer Lucy says, "Not everything is lost if the will to fight for it exists…what is most feared can be beaten and even the weak can have a voice".

What is it Worth? : Brazil, race and "charity"

Such hope for change is not shared by Sérgio Bianchi in What is it Worth? The Brazilian auteur reflects on the current practices of Brazil's NGO sector through the lens of the nation's slave society in the 1790s.

Throughout the film we are presented with reconstructed incidents of inequality and racism recorded in Brazil's 18th century legal archive. A white man steals a black woman's slave and has her arrested for breach of the peace when she complains. A wealthy white lady buys an elderly slave's "freedom" only to make her work twice as long to repay the debt. A black bounty hunter is forced to hunt down an errant slave to pay his way. Between these sections Bianchi presents a savage critique of the issues of power and ownership within the economics of the present-day charity sector. As in his previous work, there is a slightly surreal edge to proceedings but his film is the most thought-provoking of the Human Rights Watch film festival's Latin American selection.

The NGO network in Brazil has become a self-sustaining industry living by its own activity. Indeed, the human rights scholar Edward Cleary has noted that if each organisation existing to aid street children took in a child the problem may easily be solved. Bianchi shows such charities selecting the right colour of children to get the perfect "look" and designing programmes to meet donors needs, not those of the "clients". The director's target is ultimately the middle- to upper-class hypocrisy underlying the outward appearances of "charity" work and the corruption that often sustains it.

The crucial twist of the film is that the same actors play similar roles in both time periods. Thus, an elderly cleaner is used to siphon money into her employer's accounts. A protesting female worker is sacked and in the final denouement a young black man is paid to kill her and her baby in order to provide for his family and escape the poverty trap. The circle of racism and economic inequality is complete and the film's enduring image remains the iron facemask worn by slaves as punishment, their sight restricted to tiny eyeholes, their mouths blocked from sustenance. The message is clear: things have not changed.

What is it Worth?
Stills from What is it Worth?

More articles by Rob Cawston, the website assistant extraordinaire at openDemocracy:

"A Man Without a Country", Kurt Vonnegut (February, 2006)

Syriana (December, 2005)

Is everything illuminated? The curse of "logophilia" (December, 2005)

Nuremberg and the legacy of law (November, 2005)

Brazil on a knife edge (October, 2005)

How it feels: Martin Scorsese's Bob Dylan (September, 2005)

Uncovering the past (Guatemala) (September, 2005)

Forward-looking memory

In Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass the White Queen tells Alice "it is a poor sort of memory that only works backwards". The Queen then screams because, as Alice finds out, the monarch is about to prick her own finger. The memory of the event comes before its happening.

All three films from Latin America reflect on a country's past in order to enlighten the present. But they also warn that looking back or remembering is only useful in so far as it can change what happens next. Otherwise, they say, you are likely to get pricked again.

State of Fear is the most explicit in its warnings, offering lessons for today's countries seeking to balance civil liberties with national security. In the current "war on terror" human rights are being traded using the currency of fear. As Lisa Laplante recently asked in openDemocracy, "how far is the United States today repeating the same equivocal path as Peru in many of its policy decisions?"

Yates's film has been translated into 45 languages and broadcast in 145 countries, including Nepal and Russia (although permission has not yet been granted in the United States), and a Quechua version is currently in production. Shown recently in Colombia, many audience members saw their own country reflected back at them: "For you this is a film about Peru. For us it is a film about Colombia". Peru itself has been slow to implement the recommendations of its own truth commission and the forthcoming elections may well decide how much further they will be pursued.

In all these countries what is at stake is the quality of democracy and thus the dignity held by its citizens. The lessons from history are there on the screen: to leave behind fear, injustice and inequality, and to not repeat the mistakes of the past. As the Peruvian Truth Commission report concludes, "history must start today … let the horror be gone forever, the painful memories converted to hope."

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.