Argentina: The Official Story

(1985; dir: Luis Puenzo; language: Spanish; original title: La historia oficial, also released in English as The Official Version)

The Official Story was one of a group of films to be released shortly after the fall of Argentina’s last military junta. Set in Buenos Aires during the dictatorship, the story follows an upper-middle class history teacher Alicia (Norma Aleandro) as she begins to suspect that her adopted daughter may be a child stolen from of one of Argentina’s ‘desaparecido’ – the between 9,000 and 30,000 people forcibly disappeared under Argentina’s Dirty War. The film won screeds of awards, including an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and thus felt like an obvious choice for my Argentinian entry. Others that are now on my to-watch list are the more recent The Secrets in Their Eyes (2009), which deals with a similar topic through a murder mystery framework, and the fun-looking con-artist flick Nine Queens (2000).

In some ways, the narrative of the film is a fairly simple one. When her illegally adopted daughter Gaby turns five, Alicia attempts to get her husband Roberto (Héctor Alterio) – a government official – to finally tell her the details behind the adoption. His cagey avoidance of the subject sparks an uneasiness that soon turns into suspicion when Alicia’s old school friend Ana (Chunchuna Villafañe) returns from exile and confides that she had been kidnapped, raped and tortured by the junta, and had seen babies snatched from other political prisoners. As Alicia attempts to learn more about how Gaby came to be her daughter, her emotions and her conscience are set at odds with one another in more ways than one.

I found it to be an immensely powerful and moving film (yes, I cried), and a surprisingly subtle one. For a film that could easily have dissolved into melodrama, it did a fantastic job of refusing to back down on the complexity of human emotion. Neither Alicia nor Roberto were particularly sympathetic – a conservative bourgeois woman and her government operative husband – and Roberto got more and more awful as the film went on. But unappealing as they were, both Alicia and Roberto were complex and very human. Even after some unforgivably abusive behavior at the end, I was still convinced that Roberto had a soul and was suffering, even if I didn’t grieve for him as much as I did for some of the others. However, it is Aleandro’s magnificent performance as Alicia that was the film’s real star turn (and won her an award at Cannes); it is Alicia’s internal conflict that is the centre of the film, and in Aleandro’s acting it is possible to see (or even feel) the thoughts and emotions running through her character’s mind.

Also contributing to the characters’ complexity, and the film’s subtlety, was the lack of answers. How much exactly did Roberto know about the torture and disappearances, and about where Gaby came from? Was it Roberto that turned Ana in? Was the woman who came forward really Gaby’s grandmother and what will happen with Gaby now? Will Alicia leave her husband? What happened to all of Roberto’s disappearing colleagues? How are the Americans involved in the junta’s activities? (Well, the last one has been answered by history). My viewing companion found these unanswered questions a little annoying, but I kind of liked that everything was left in a mess. It seemed to fit with the suspicion and secrecy of the film’s setting, as well as the fact that many of the Dirty War’s secrets will never be discovered.

It is interesting comparing this film to the previously reviewed NO about the fall of Chile’s military dictator (and member alongside Argentina of the ‘Condor’ dictatorships). Although the films clearly have different goals and even subject matter, there are nevertheless certain similarities between them, and it is the differences between the films’ handling of these points that made The Official Story by far the stronger film. Firstly in terms of its production. Instead of NO‘s integrated archival footage, The Official Story was filmed on location with live footage of the actors amid protests. For all that the fashions are equally dated, The Official Story – planned and written while the junta was still in place – conveys an authentic urgency that makes NO seem forced, soulless and commercial.

Secondly, the two films are also similar in that neither actually depict onscreen the abuses carried out under the countries’ respective dictatorships. As a relatively sensitive viewer, this is probably a good thing. But unlike NO, in The Official Story these crimes and abuses are nevertheless put firmly into focus, revealed with a delicate brutality to the viewer through the initially blind Alicia. The viewer is left to fill in the pieces, to mentally take in the facts and calculate the scale of the thing themselves – which is perhaps the only way to make something like that even close to understandable for those who have not experienced its like. For me, fathoming such horror takes living with it a bit, taking it in and processing it, rather than simply looking at the tally of the dead in a news story and thinking “that’s horrible”, before moving on. And The Official Story forced me, alongside Alicia, to internalise and live with the horror.

Thirdly, the two films both dealt with themes of progress and modernisation at odds with extant (anarcho-)socialist activism. In NO, the young unaligned advertising executive spurns the stuffy socialists’ desires to air complaints about Pinochet’s reign of terror, and saves Chile from dictatorship through an ad campaign that promises consumerism, Westernisation and moving-on as a panacea for the country’s suffering. In The Official Story, on the other hand, notions of progress, modernisation and capitalist ‘success’ are portrayed as blinkers and distractions from the government’s abuses, and as the tools of those who are profiting from the junta. While Alicia is freaking out over the truths she is beginning to learn about her country and her family, Roberto is busy making shady money and trying to press modern appliances on his mother, a contrast that speaks volumes about the priorities and motivations of Argentina’s bourgeois. Roberto is roundly schooled by his sweetly staunch anarchist father, in a scene that reveals the selfishness that enabled people like Roberto to be a party to the junta’s crimes. This meant that The Official Story felt more thematically and politically coherent than NO, which seemed to be attempting a bob both ways politically.

In terms of learning about the country itself, The Official Story had a lot more to offer than NO, mostly because stories about the junta’s crimes and their effects on Argentine society were put front and centre, rather than silenced. And although the main characters were from the bourgeoisie, other characters brought in views from other classes and political backgrounds. I think it also helped me to understand something not restricted to Argentina, namely how (comparatively) privileged and powerful members of a society (even history teachers!) can – willfully or otherwise – ignore the desperate situations of others in their society, and even be complicit in the abuse of others. Without relenting on Alicia’s responsibility and guilt, the film explored how this is made possible and maintained. It would be interesting to know how the film was and is received in Argentina – one of the criticisms of NO was the extent to which it erased and misrepresented the historical facts. One of Alicia’s students in The Official Story proclaims that history is written by assassins. Perhaps The Official Story and films of its ilk are steps towards remedying that.

As a final reflection, I said earlier that Alicia’s internal conflict is the centre of the film, and this conflict is offered up to the viewer: what would you do if you found out your child was stolen from another couple, who were probably tortured and murdered, and this probably with your husband’s knowledge? But for me the film, and this question, underscored the impossibility of justice or doing ‘right’ after crimes such as those witnessed by Argentina (and many many other countries). This is not to say that justice oughtn’t to be striven for, or that one shouldn’t listen to wronged parties that call for it. This is more of a musing that some damage is too catastrophic to mitigate or set right, which is a thought that seems as topical today as in the 1980s.

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Austria: The Seventh Continent

(1989; dir: Michael Haneke; language: German; original title: Der siebente Kontinent)

The Seventh Continent is Austrian director Michael Haneke’s first feature film, and portrays in extreme detail a bourgeois Austrian family going about their stilted routine lives in 1980s Vienna. That’s about as much as it is possible for me to say about the film without discussing the ending, so if you don’t want to know what happens at the end then stop reading now.

In my research for Austrian films, I turned up the more recent success Revanche and the wonderfully titled Blood Glacier. Perhaps unfairly, the premise of the former didn’t exactly grab me, and while the latter was actually quite tempting I wasn’t sure if it would be the best choice for my purpose of also trying to learn a little about the country in question (though who knows?). I shied away from Oscar-winner The Counterfeiters for similar reasons, as it is set in Germany. So in the end I went with a Michael Haneke film, which seemed kind of inevitable. Haneke is probably easily Austria’s most famous film-maker, a staple at Cannes and renowned for making films that violently criticise bourgeois audiences, who in turn pour accolades upon the films. I saw Haneke’s interpretation of Austrian Nobel Laureate Elfriede Jelinek’s novel The Piano Teacher many many years ago, and remembered being entranced by the film, as well as being uniquely physically and emotionally affected. Seeing as many of Haneke’s films, including The Piano Teacher, are produced and/or set in France, I decided to choose one of his earlier Austrian ones.

I have to admit that for most of the film, I adored it. I loved the shots, the slow jerky rhythms, the spare sound. I loved the focus on the banal routines of everyday life on a level of detail and scrutiny that renders them obscene: the sounds of chewing that made me want to grit my own teeth; how ridiculous an average-looking naked man looks when he is washing himself in the shower; the pointless and aggravating amount of labour (domestic and otherwise) that goes into achieving what counts as a normal nice upper-middle class European life. I especially loved the tight focus on the hands interacting with objects – the story this film is telling is not a human one, conveyed through eyes that are windows to souls. It is a surgical examination of people’s lives as constituted by things. For me, this is where the film was most effective – showing up how empty of inherent necessity or meaning are the many many things I do, buy, worry about, and devote time and energy to without a second thought. Especially, it must be said, since I moved to Europe – where group pressure is more intense and the standards for ‘niceness’/behaving ‘properly’ are much higher. In general I think I’m just a fan of art about the everyday, that dares to devote time and space to the banal, that dares to be boring and yet also isn’t. Much as I love escapism, I also believe in the need to philosophically and artistically consider the mechanics and implications of everyday life, even and perhaps especially the banal aspects. Works such as The Seventh Continent, or Chris Ware’s amazing collection of comics Building Stories, succeed in not only representing the banal aspects of everyday life, but also examining how these routine actions actually shape people’s lives.

With The Seventh Continent, the effects of their lived routines can be seen in the dynamic between the Schober family members – Georg (Dieter Berner), Anna (Birgit Doll), and their child Eva (Leni Tanzer). They are a family that seems to be doing everything ‘right’, and yet they are all showing small signs of unhappiness. They are a family not without tenderness, and communicate, if infrequently, enough not to qualify for a referral to family counselling. All their communication, all their interactions, seemed honest and yet also scripted by internalised social norms – like going through the motions, but also believing that that’s what family is. In a recurring sequence throughout the film, various constellations of family members sit in silence in the carwash together for several minutes, while the machinery of modern society pummels their shell from without, and yet inside the proffered tenderness doesn’t provide the solace they require. But none of this spells anything out of the ordinary. The viewer is not permitted to find a human ‘explanation’ for the family’s fate. Indeed, the film relentlessly refuses to humanise or develop its characters, focussing more on their physical relationships with things than any emotional ones.

All this, of course, builds up a sense of foreboding on the part of the viewer. I saw Haneke’s films described somewhere as ‘anti-thrillers’ and that’s probably a good term for this one. On one level it’s mundane, on another mesmerizing – I certainly found it so even though I knew what was going to happen. Some have complained about the sheer length of the sequence that makes up much of the film’s climax, where the family methodically and thoroughly destroy, without passion, every single one of their belongings – clothes, photos, furniture, money, even the child Eva gets involved by calmly tearing up her drawings – before taking their own lives. But I have to agree with this reviewer (from a really great piece about this and others of Haneke’s films):

[the length of the sequence] is important: throughout the film the family is defined primarily by their relationships with objects rather than with one another, and when they engage in their ritual of self-destruction, they’re still interacting with objects, acting with the same mechanical precision and abstraction with which they’d lived their ordinary lives. The way Haneke films this, with the closeups of hands and the repetition, enforces the idea that the family is in the process of dying exactly as they’d lived. If the sequence weren’t so long and repetitious, if it were punchier and less deliberate, there would be a risk that it could be taken as a catharsis, and Haneke clearly doesn’t intend it as one: this isn’t rebellion, really, it’s giving up, succumbing to the numbing societal structure that had been beating this family down throughout the entirety of the film.

Essentially I thought the film was brilliant, until the actor playing Georg smashed the Schobers’ large fishtank and the camera lingers on the real actual fish flopping around on the floor in distress and gasping for oxygen and the child comes in and starts screaming and crying inconsolably. This upset me in multiple ways and ruined the film for me. Firstly, and most seriously, animal cruelty is never defensible. Doing it for a film, for multiple takes, leading to the death of some of the animal actors (an industry term, not mine, but one which I use as a reminder that animals are not objects and set-dressing but living beings), is outright reprehensible. This was cause enough to ruin the film for me, and to make me unlikely to watch another Haneke film (many of which, I have now found out, contain more extreme animal cruelty and slaughter). But the sequence with the fishtank also ruined the film for me artistically. Like Ed Howard in the review quoted from above, I was totally distracted from the film out of horror and concern for the suffering for the fish, and instead began to see the whole thing much more as a production – with a set, actors, cameras, and no real consequences for any of the living beings portrayed on the screen other than the fish who died in distress. And no, I don’t care if upsetting me and shocking me was “what Haneke was trying to do”. If that is the case then it seems to be more of a strategy of shocking for the sake of shocking – or as Jason Bellamy puts it in the review cited above: “less provoking the audience as a means to an end than … provoking the audience as an end unto itself,” something backed up by a quote here from Haneke about his film Funny Games (source of original quote not given, though):  “Of course, all the rules that usually make the viewer go home happy and contented are broken in my film. There’s this unspoken rule that you can’t harm animals. What do I do? I kill the dog first thing.” I find Haneke’s decision to cause and incorporate real animal cruelty in his films not only indefensible but also… just… cheap.

I don’t know, I could say more about the end, about how it was good/interesting how messy and gross and human the deaths of the family members seemed in contrast to their robotic and ordered lives. I could discuss how having Georg left till last to die and seeming the most calm about it actually made the whole thing feel more like a murder suicide and more distressing from a perspective of gendered power relations and the power relations between adults and children (not to mention humans and animals), but really I was just too disappointed and annoyed by the fishtank thing to even really engage with the rest of the film or develop these thought tangents further.

What did I learn about Austria? Apart from that they have problems with consumerism and destructive social norms in a way that is shared by most of Europe, and probably bourgeoisie all over the world, I think the case could be made that this film has something distinctly Austrian. Even though forty years separate the end of the second world war and the events of The Seventh Continent, it’s not a tremendously long time for a society to recuperate from the social diseases of Fascism and Nazism (indeed, the recent EU election results reveal a strong fascist presence in Austria even today), and struggling with repressed collective guilt seems like an effective recipe for an escape into materialism as well as strong social norms requiring everything to be ‘nice’. I’ve just started reading Elfriede Jelinek’s novel Wonderful, Wonderful Times, set in 1950s Vienna, and there are definitely strong elements of this in what I’ve read of the book so far. Whether or not this was something Haneke was going for or not, I can’t say, but that’s a bit of what I read into it anyway.