By Michael Sandlin.
Despite its low-budget workmanlike feel, this documentary from Emmy-winning directors Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar – and produced by Spanish directorial titan Pedro Almodovar – just may be one of the most socio-historically significant European documentaries of recent years. Although it may not have the depth and artistry of other notable post-military-junta docs like Enemies of the People or The Missing Picture, The Silence of Others does do the humanistic service of reminding us of just how brutally repressive Spain’s fascist Franco regime was throughout its 40-year reign from 1936 to 1975. The film tells the stories of surviving political dissidents who were either themselves torture victims of the Franco regime’s secret police or were related to enemies of the state who were persecuted or murdered by Franco’s henchmen – some of whom have been walking Spanish streets for decades without fear of reprisal. It’s no surprise that Almodovar would have a hand in the film’s production, instrumental as he was in Spain’s post-Franco creative renaissance known popularly as La Movida Madrilena (The Madrid Scene), which amounted to a widespread multi-disciplinary countercultural movement hellbent on taking full advantage of post-dictatorship permissiveness in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Post-Franco Spain, as the film shows, has been a culture of state-mandated amnesia for the last 40 or so years. In 1977, the Spanish government ratified the so-called Amnesty Law, which was ostensibly a gesture of pardon for so-called crimes against the Franco regime in one sense but was also meant to prevent fascist atrocities from ever being investigated in Spanish courts. Carracedo and Bahar give important examples of how this mass act of historical memory loss is still holding the Spanish public in its thrall. Many university-age youngsters interviewed in the film seem to have no clue as to what took place under Franco: It’s a dark chapter in Spanish history that’s largely ignored or glossed over in official histories and state education curriculums.
And whereas many Latin American countries that had long ago implemented similar post-military dictatorship amnesty laws – Peru, Argentina, Chile, for instance – are now overturning these laws and retroactively enacting punitive measures against still-surviving war criminals. Yet at the time of this filming, Spain’s government and its laughably outdated monarchy were still desperately clinging to the official policy of “national forgetting.” Carracedo and Bahar’s film takes care to expose the influential far-right forces in Spain that still promote Franco’s legacy as one marked by valiant anti-Communist resistance (“He [Franco] was never wrong,” says the Franco Foundation leader in an on-camera interview). And it’s clear that these ultra-conservative forces still have influence in government: in fact, in one scene we watch the Spanish parliament struggle to gain a democratic consensus on merely replacing Franco-friendly street names with the namesakes of more benevolent Spanish historical figures. And up until very recently there could be found more official memorialization of Franco’s fascist regime in modern-day Spain than monuments to the antifascists who fought against them. It seems that in Spain “national forgetting” is a policy that really applies only to the vanquished, not the victors.
The film’s primary strength lies in its human angle: the men and women who refuse to take part in Spain’s project of collective amnesia. We meet Maria Martin, who even in infirmity and old age still doggedly petitions the government to have her mother’s remains exhumed from anonymous mass graves and be given an officially recognized burial. For Jose Galante, a former torture victim and political prisoner of the Franco regime, his traumatic past is still too hauntingly close for comfort – he not only resides on a street named after Franco’s General Yague, but he also lives only a few meters from the man who actually tortured him: the infamous Antonio González “Billy the Kid” Pacheco, Franco’s go-to bullyboy. Maria Mercedes Bueno’s story goes even further into the depths of the Franco regime’s Nazi-like depravity: she’s one of untold thousands of women who had their newborn babies stolen from them at fascist-run state hospitals. Many single mothers like Bueno were deemed unfit for motherhood. And often new mothers who were known leftists – and thought to carry a “red” gene – would be told by the hospital that their babies died during childbirth. Then the newborns would be systematically re-distributed to families more sympathetic to the Franco regime.
As bleak as it all sounds, a glimmer of hope does emerge for these long-suffering victims of Franco’s reign of terror. Since the Spanish courts are deaf to their petitions, they decide to avail themselves of the policy of universal jurisdiction, where charges against perpetrators of crimes against humanity can be filed from any country in the world. In this case, the plaintiffs find a high-profile lawyer in Argentina willing to do the legal legwork to try and bring previously untouchable thugs like Pacheco and others to trial. Although these efforts aren’t completely in vain, it soon becomes clear that justice for these brave activist victims will be heartbreakingly anti-climactic. The Silence of Others may not be able to offer the sort of catharsis that the steadily snowballing events in the narrative hint at, we’re left with a glint of optimism that this increasingly vocal anti-Franco movement may one day succeed in freeing Spain, once and for all, from the shackles of its fascist past.
Michael Sandlin‘s work has appeared in Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Film Quarterly, Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the cinema trade publication Video Librarian.