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Calls for justice mostly fall on stony ground in The Silence of Others, a stirring documentary about the victims of Spanish dictator Gen. Francisco Franco and their ongoing fight to extract some kind of legal payback. Directed by the Emmy-winning duo Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar (Made in L.A.), and boasting executive producer credits for Spanish cinema heavyweights Pedro and Augustin Almodovar, this Berlin world premiere is a solid piece of in-depth factual reportage. Conventional in form, but well-crafted and informative, it should find a natural home at festivals and on small-screen platforms. The Almodovar brand may boost niche theatrical potential, too.
The Silence of Others is woven together from individuals’ stories, mostly tragic, some inspiring. An elderly woman tends a roadside shrine where her murdered mother’s naked body was dumped by Franco’s militia decades before. An 80-year-old grandmother jets halfway around the world in her tortuous quest to exhume her father’s bones from a mass grave. Women whose newborns were taken for a sinister state-run eugenics program fight to expose the long-buried truth about their stolen offspring. Meanwhile, notorious Franco torturers like Antonio Gonzalez Pacheco, nicknamed Billy the Kid, still walk the streets of Madrid with impunity.
A quick history lesson early in the film sets up the backstory to these unresolved horrors. At the end of the Spanish Civil War, having seized power in a military coup, Franco’s repressive regime cracked down on any lingering hint of leftist opposition with mass arrests, prison camps, forced labor, torture and execution. Estimates of extrajudicial killings during his four-decade rule top 100,000. Modern Spain is dotted with unmarked mass graves.
When Franco died in 1975, Spain moved quickly to embrace liberal democracy. In 1977, the Parliament passed the contentious Amnesty Law, which not only freed anti-Franco political prisoners but also pardoned his shadow army of murderers and torturers. In the interest of national healing and reconciliation, a mass act of collective amnesia was demanded. It was called El Pacto del Olvido, “the pact of forgetting.”
But forgetting is not the same as forgiving. The Silence of Others chronicles a growing grassroots campaign among victims of the old regime who are seeking to overturn the Amnesty Law and drag Franco’s surviving henchmen to justice. The process is slow and painstaking, but midway through the film this plucky bunch of senior citizens lands a sucker punch by persuading Argentine judge Maria Servini to mount a legal challenge under international law. As precedent, they cite the detention of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998 under a Spanish arrest warrant. The U.N. has also repeatedly urged Spain to repeal the law, arguing that it does not apply to crimes against humanity.
Patiently gathering material over six years, Carracedo and Bahar chronicle this blossoming movement with sober journalistic diligence. In aesthetic terms, they make scant concessions to visual poetry aside from occasional shots of a mountaintop sculpture commemorating Franco’s victims, which serves as a recurring motif. There is no attempt to illuminate historical injustice with the stylistic daring of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, for example, or Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir. Serious subjects should not be treated flippantly, of course, but the Almodovar brothers could have brought a little of their signature visual sparkle to this fairly prosaic package.
The Silence of Others does not leave viewers with a satisfying sense of closure. Two key campaigners die during the course of the production. Judge Servini lodges extradition requests for more than 20 former government officials suspected of human rights abuses, but they remain blocked by Spain to this day. Pro-Franco nationalists even stage rival protest rallies waving “Make Spain Great Again” placards. Even in the 21st century, tyrants still have their fan clubs. There is no big redemptive payoff here, just a few small victories and hopeful pointers to the future. The struggle continues. But this is still a very necessary story, delivered with rigor and conviction.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Production companies: Semilla Verde Productions, Lucernam Film
Cast: Jose Galantes, Carlos Slepoy, Maria Martin, Maria Servini
Directors, producers: Almudena Carracedo, Robert Bahar
Executive producers: Pedro Almodovar, Agustín Almodovar, Sally Jo Fifer, Sandie Vizquez Pedlow
Cinematographer: Almudena Carracedo
Editors: Kim Roberts, Ricardo Acosta
Music: Leonardo Heiblum, Jacobo Lueberman
Sales company: Cinephil, Tel Aviv
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