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Film and the 'Dirty War'

June 23, 2011

(Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her previous post, she wrote about the Film and Video Festival at this year's Council on Foundations conference.)

TheDisappeared How would you like your new Web site to get 40,000 visits within two weeks of launch?

That's been the experience of Memoria Abierta, a Buenos Aires-based nongovernmental organization that is working to preserve the historic memory of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship in Argentina and the so-called "dirty war" it waged against its political opponents. Earlier this month the organization published an online catalogue of films about the dictatorship, and the response has been overwhelming. Most visitors to the site have been from Argentina, but La Dictadura en el Cine ("The Dictatorship in the Movies") is open to any Spanish-speaker who wants to learn not just about what happened in Argentina but also how the terrible events of those years relate to similar situations elsewhere. Indeed, as post-conflict societies increasingly look to international courts for justice and search for local approaches to conflict resolution, knowledge about what happened in Argentina can be a crucial tool.

"We’ve wanted to do this project since we were founded more than a decade ago," Patricia Valdez, the director of Memoria Abierta, a coalition of four human rights groups working on various aspects of the junta's legacy, recently told me. "We knew there were a lot of films made about the history, both fiction and documentaries: we identified four hundred and fifty for the catalogue. And they continue to be made -- we found thirty-two new ones produced just last year! We also knew there was great demand to see these films and that many of them were not available." All the films in the catalogue can be viewed onsite at the organization's offices in Buenos Aires.

With funding from the Dutch embassy (as part of its efforts to encourage human rights programs in Argentina that promote transparency and accountability), the project finally got some traction last year. Two researchers (with assistance from other consultants and advisors) worked for over a year to identify films and track down copies. Films were selected on the basis of two criteria: that they dealt with the dictatorship, however obliquely; and that they had been publicly screened in a festival, a commercial theater, and/or a community center. The vast majority were made in Argentina, including many, like The Official Story, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1986, the first Latin American film to ever receive that honor, that are well known internationally.

"As far as we know, this catalogue is unique,” says Valdez. "And as an online publication, it can expanded and updated." There are film collections organized by ethnic/racial group and by historical event -- for example, the Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University and the Stephen Spielberg Film & Video Archive at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. But films about a country suffering under dictatorship and then transitioning to democracy haven't been collected into a single location where they can be accessed by scholars, students, and the general public. "The Dictatorship in the Movies" would appear to be a first, and as such is an important contribution to the field of transitional justice.

The catalogue itself is organized, word-cloud style, by theme; clicking on one takes you to a selection of thumbnail images, which are linked in turn to additional information about that particular film. Click, for example, on the phrase "search for the disappeared" and you'll get a thumbnail and additional information about Our Disappeared, a 2008 documentary by Boston-area filmmaker Juan Mandelbaum about his search for childhood friends left behind when his family moved from Argentina to the U.S. (The film has been shown on PBS stations and in festivals around the world.)

Mandelbaum happens to be with me this week at the Flaherty Film Seminar at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. I asked him about the catalogue. "It's a fantastic resource. It is very broad, which is important. Even feature films that served as propaganda for the dictatorship and military training films are included."

(In fact, the only film that can be viewed online at the moment, I’m Wounded! Attack!, is a 21-minute propaganda film made by the military government in 1977 that was considered lost for many years.)

Paula Felix-Didier, director of the Museo del Cine Pablo Ducros Hicken in Buenos Aires, is also at the Flaherty seminar, where she has presented several rare short films of Argentine singer Carlos Gardel performing in 1930. Commenting on the catalogue, Felix-Didier tells me that "Argentina hasn't taken good care of our cultural heritage and historical memory. Memoria Abierta and other human rights groups have made a huge and successful effort to reclaim our memory, and the catalogue is one of the new information tools we have."

(Four filmmakers are among the disappeared in Argentina, and their works are included in the catalogue.)

With its rich history of film production and it's current role as a model for transitional justice, it's not surprising that Argentina has produced a catalogue like this. As Patricia Valdez says: "These films are a privileged language and vehicle for transmission in that they depict elements of personal and social trauma, and of institutional and political drama, that then become part of the memory and collective culture of a society."

-- Kathryn Pyle

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Posted by studentenhaver  |   September 14, 2011 at 07:06 AM

Nice post!

Posted by Paula  |   October 13, 2011 at 05:39 AM

You wrote something that people could understand and made the subject intriguing for everyone. Really, great blog youve got here.

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