Spain's years of Forgetting: 'The Silence of Others'
A powerful new documentary about seeking justice for Franco's victims
When people think of Spain, they usually think of quaint towns, fiery Flamenco, tapas, and the fabulous installations of Spanish artist Gaudi.
Seldom, if ever, do they think of another Spanish son, Francisco Franco, whose calculated and vicious almost 40-year hold over Spain left the country with mass graves distributed over fields and under roadways, and hundreds of thousands of people erased from official memory.
It is this silence and the drive to reclaim both the memories of Franco’s dead and the justice for the living Emmy-award winning directors Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar explore in their new documentary, “The Silence of Others,” executive produced by Pedro Almodovar.
As “Caudillo” or leader of Spain from 1939-1975, Generalissimo Francisco Franco ruled with a catholic ruthlessness worthy of the Inquisitor Torquemada. Thousands died or were disappeared over the years, accused of being Communist, leftists, or simply not good moral citizens. Others were arrested and tortured during the student demonstrations of the 1960’s, newborns were taken from “unacceptable” mothers, still others fled into exile before the wrath of the Caudillo and his followers could erase them, too.
When Franco died in 1975, he left a county of mourners- those who had seen him as the very soul of Spain, and those who thought they could finally search for the bodies of their dead, and reclaim the lives Franco’s regime had swallowed.
Such hope was short lived, because, in the aftermath that followed, there was no Truth and Reconciliation Commission, no move to seek justice. Only a quickly passed law, the Amnesty Law of 1977 which, incredibly, gave amnesty not only to those once deemed enemies of the State, but also for the crimes of the State against them. More than that, the law became understood as “El Pacto de olvido,” a national pact of forgetting.
“ A forgetting of all, by all,” declares one speaker before the Spanish Parliament , seen in archival footage in the film. “ It is the only way to shake each other’s hand without rancor.”
“The Silence of Others” follows a group of survivors and descendants of survivors as they seek justice in the courts of Argentina under the idea of Universal Jurisdiction- that any court in any country can pursue justice where acts of terror, torture, and genocide (among others) have occurred.
It is to a scrappy Argentine judge, Maria Servini, the group turns to after failing to convince the Spanish Courts the 1977 law does not preclude filing the case in Spain.
Ironically, Spain was a pioneer in concept of Universal Jurisdiction and was instrumental in pursuing Pinochet of Chile and recently some of the architects of Argentina’s own “dirty war” against its citizens.
Filmed over six years, “Silence” is an eloquent yet emotionally wrenching telling of the multiple crimes of the Franco regime and how they haunt the present through the personal stories of those who lived to tell.
Among them is the wizen, elderly Maria Martin, who, for the majority of her life has left flowers at the site along a road where her mother’s body was found. In the film, Martin, her voice raspy with age, but bristling with outrage no passage of time can subdue, points to where her mother and other women had been executed.
Martin was six when her mother, accused of being a “red,” was taken, her head shaved and shot into a mass grave. It has haunted Martin ever since.
And the there is the vibrant and charismatic, Jose M. Galante, known as “Chato,” arrested and tortured for his part in student protests. One of the most stunning moments in the film comes when Galante discovers how present the Francoist past is.“ I live just meters away from the man who tortured me, “ the notorious Madrid police inspector Antonio Gonzalez Pacheco, known as “Billy the Kid.”
“Silence” interweaves the past with the trajectory of the “Argentine Lawsuit group,” creating a clear and compassionate layout of how the Franco regime pursued its objective of a pure state and the price the people have paid even into the present.
The archival footage is compelling- clear, well laid out, often including the main characters, especially the student protesters.
The cinematography of the current era is lush and hauntingly beautiful, in particular that of the small villages and the Spanish countryside.
It is hard to imagine just how much pain and silences lie buried under the rich Spanish soil. And yet that is exactly what the camera discovers as Ascensión Mendieta, one of the plaintiffs, waits to see her father’s remains unearthed so that she can bury him.
As the searchers dig, it becomes clear just how deliberate the Francoists were. One of the diggers is stunned, “ I have never seen such a deep mass grave,” he says, flinging yet another shovelful of dirt, “they knew exactly how many people they wanted to bury.”
But, as one character observes, Francoism did not die with Franco, and it lingers on uneasily in the day to day.
Carracedo and Bahar do not shy away from also showing the difficulty of a Spain trying to come to grips with a murderous past and its collective silence. In a situation reminiscent of the US debate on Confederate statues, Spaniards, some even relatives of the plaintiffs, discuss renaming streets and taking down statues.
“It’s part of our history,” says one.
“But can you imagine Nazi names in a city in Germany?” someone asks.
To which another responds, “we must remember so that it never happens again.”
Even now, reconciling the past with the present is still an on-going process in Spain. In one scene, Franco enthusiasts hold up a banner saying “Make Spain Great Again,” while celebrating Franco’s birthday. In another, a haunting monument to the forgotten victims stands, overlooking the Jerte Valley. Someone recently shot them and the newly acquired bullet holes complete the work, says the sculptor, Francisco Cedenilla.
The film, appropriately enough, ends not with a triumphant bang, but with a defiant maybe. There are delays in the case; Maria Martin has passed away without burying her mother. There are those, says one character, “who don’t want it to go to trial and seek ways to delay it in hopes the witnesses will die off.”
But regardless of the open ending, the film stands as a moving and visually stunning testament to human faith and frailty.
The fact that it recently won a Goya, Spain’s equivalent of the Oscars, and was shown on national television, indicates that “The Silence of Others” is helping to open up dialog.
Perhaps the way to make Spain great again, the film suggests, is an on-going process of remembering of all, by all.
As one of the witnesses of the Argentine case says, “the State cannot forgive, only individuals can.”
“The Silence of Others” is currently screening at the Digital Gym. See https://digitalgym.org/category/cinema/ for dates and times. The film will also screen nationally on PBS as part of the POV season in September.
"Bones of Contention" (2017), dir. Andrea Weiss
Un exilio: Pelicula familiar (2017) dir. Juan Francisco Urrusti