'Finding Oscar': Telluride Review

An absorbing documentary about an unlikely survival story.

This documentary, executive produced by Steven Spielberg, delves into the brutal history of Guatemala's military regime in the early 1980s.

The murderous civil right violations of one of Guatemala's many military regimes are given an intimately human context in Finding Oscar. Via unflinching looks at countless skeletons of arbitrarily killed peasants and vivid nightmarish recollections of survivors, director/co-writer Ryan Suffern puts a useful, if highly selective, spotlight on atrocities against indigenous populations in the early 1980s, just one period of the country's 35-year civil war. The film's final act focuses on a long-shot single personal story of family discovery and unification that wades into uplifting sentimental territory, although it's hard to argue that the depicted connection isn't quite remarkable.

This first production from the Kennedy/Marshall Company's new documentary division (with Steven Spielberg on board as executive producer) is sure to achieve significant exposure wherever emotionally effective and politically charged nonfiction work is welcome.

Although the titular survival story that serves as the film's dramatic center is not widely known, it isn't new to American media, as it was the subject of a noted episode of the This American Life TV series, called “What Happened at Dos Erres,” broadcast in May 2012. What happened at Dos Erres, on Dec. 6, 1982, was the the murder of the village's entire population of between 200-250 people by an elite government commando squad in the (false) belief that some stolen army rifles were being hidden there by guerrillas who had pulled off a successful attack on the military shortly before.

This represented one day's contribution to the roughly 200,000 civilians killed or subjected to “forced disappearance” by various military regimes between 1960-96, and Suffern does not make it his mission to try to provide anything resembling a full picture of or explanation for the violence of those years. He merely notes the U.S.' active support of a succession of military regimes leading to a state visit and show of support by President Ronald Reagan for the latest general to run the show, Efrain Rios Montt, in the same month the massacre occurred (Suffern doesn't mention that Rios Montt would himself be kicked out eight months later).

Much more than on local politics, Finding Oscar focuses upon the peasants and the efforts of a few stalwarts, in the name of human rights, to learn what happened in a town that has thereafter remained uninhabited. The exhumation of human remains began in 1994, and the film offers startling footage of bones being collected and then repositioned in warehouses to approximate skeletons for identification purposes; often, clothing has been found either on them on nearby. There is detail about the Kaibiles, or killer commando units, their use of “massacre as a type of warfare,” and the extreme rarity of anyone being held to account for their crimes, even years later.

But with the end of the war came a Human Rights and Truth Commission, the emergence of some tireless legal crusaders on behalf of the victims and some exceptional personal stories, specifically that of Oscar Alfredo Ramirez Castaneda. Aged three at the time of the Dos Erres massacre, Oscar and another little boy were spared and taken in by one of Oscar's family's killers, who subsequently died.

It's an arduous journey involving DNA and some unlikely coincidences, but the film's emotional linchpin lies in the fact that, miraculously, Oscar's biological father survived the massacre as well, having been off working in another village at the time. The old cowboy is a shell of a man, having lost nine children and his wife, but his reunion, over skype and in person, is something unique to behold. Still, it's hard to say which experience would be more disorienting: the son, now working in a Mexican restaurant in Massachusetts, learning that the man who raised him was actually the killer of his entire family, or the father finding out, more than 30 years later, that his “dead” son is still alive.

Using fresh interviews with current generation Guatemalan activists, lawyers and government figures, evocative footage from the scene of the crime and fresh exchanges with father and son, Suffern puts this tragic story to purposeful and, in some respects, inspiring use: The power of forgiveness can be remarkable, and some countries in the world have actually improved over the past 25 years.

Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Production company: Kennedy/Marshall Company
Director: Ryan Suffern
Writers: Ryan Suffern, Mark Monroe
Producers: Frank Marshall, Ryan Suffern
Executive producer: Steven Spielberg
Director of photography: Michael Parry
Editor: Martin Singer
Music: Paul Pilot, John Stiratt

Not rated, 95 minutes