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.


Chile: NO

(2012, dir: Pablo Larraín; language: Spanish; France and US co-production)


NO is a drama based on the TV campaigns in the lead-up to the 1988 Chilean plebiscite that ultimately ousted dictator Pinochet from power. In the film’s depiction of events, after 15 years of rule by military junta Pinochet’s government responds to international pressure for democratisation by declaring a national referendum: should Pinochet remain leader for another 8 years – YES or NO? (The No vote meaning a subsequent democratic election of a president and government). In an attempt to make the referendum look fair, for one month prior to the vote 15 minutes of air-time each is allotted to both the YES- and NO-campaigns. The remaining air-time remains tightly controlled by the junta government. What initially seems like a safe bet for the regime turns out to be their undoing as the innovative NO-campaign convinces a fearful and sceptical constituency to evict Pinochet, a decision that he ultimately abides by. The film follows the young and talented advertising executive René Saavedra (played by Mexican actor Gael García Bernal), son of a socialist opponent of Pinochet’s regime and formerly exiled to Mexico. Head-hunted by one of his dad’s old friends, René is initially not keen to get involved in something as political as the NO-campaign, but eventually agrees to coordinate it. This decision pits him against his Pinochet-lackey boss, and puts both René and his family in the firing line.

I chose this film because it was well-reviewed and won screeds of awards, and it being an election year in both my countries of citizenship the political theme seemed topical. The subject-matter of the film was certainly thought-provoking, especially the conflict between René and some of the other NO-campaign  producers over the campaign strategy. Many of the NO-campaigners suspect that the vote will be rigged in Pinochet’s favour, but want to use the their allotted time to air the truth about the horrors of Pinochet’s regime. Others, such as René’s ex-spouse Veronica (Antonia Zegers), argue that running a serious campaign is tantamount to collaboration with the dictatorship in that it lends credibility to the facade of democracy Pinochet wants to show internationally. Once on board, René pragmatically draws on his commercial advertising experience and opts for a cheesy campaign with a catchy pop jingle and a rainbow motif that promises a brighter future for Chile without Pinochet. This offends many of the NO-campaigners, who want to focus on exposing the suffering, torture and disappearances carried out by Pinochet’s junta. And intuitively, it is offensive to further suppress their suffering in favour of a superficial jingle, but what NO shows is that vague hope sells better than concrete outrage. This is an issue well worth pondering for contemporary activists, given the challenges of mobilising people today. When the sheer amount and scale of oppression that people face on a daily basis becomes too great, it can appear so overwhelming that escapism and the dream of a better future becomes more attractive than dealing with current problems. But whether or not the tactics of the NO-campaign are a good solution to this challenge raises questions about means and ends that, in my view, are not easily answered (and which caused a lot of debate around the real life NO-campaign).

While addressing both an interesting issue and an important event in South American history, the film’s execution left me in two minds regarding what conclusions the film was trying to push me to. However, it must first be said that one of the highlights of the film was its slick and detailed production design. The shifts between the newly shot footage and the wealth of archival material were seamless, an effect aided by the decision to shoot on U-matic film of the type commonly used in that period. The 80s vibe was well-supported by close attention to period details with some fun set-pieces such as René’s experiments with the latest addition to the kitchen – a microwave. His colourful jumpers were also excellent. I was, however, a little bit less convinced by the character’s choice of skateboard as a form of transport. Did 30-somethings really skateboard in the 80s?

Indeed, the microwave and skateboard were given enough focus in the film that they took on symbolic value for me: the microwave connoting innovation and the future; the skateboard perhaps connoting a youthful freedom, particularly at the end after Pinochet’s fall, where the final images of the film are René skateboarding through the city. Big Daddy is overthrown, and the children are free. However, while promising, these symbols seem to stop at that promise, not actually delivering on a better future. Where is René skateboarding to? What will Chile actually do now that Big Daddy Pinochet is gone? What kind of future does the microwave enable?

Herein lies what I see as one of the film’s more interesting aspects, although I’m not sure it was intended that way; while the NO-campaign focussed on the promise of a better future, the vision of that future is utterly superficial (comparisons to Obama’s “Yes We Can” have been made, and are not un-warrented). Of course, the argument could be made that any future without Pinochet would be a better one, which indeed was what the other producers of the NO-campaign were aiming at with their desire to focus on the horrors of Pinochet’s regime. But René’s campaign was selling a shiny neo-liberal dream of freedom exercised through consumption, with a distinctly American (US) flavour. As Veronica points out at one point, the tall blond picknickers in the No-campaign’s video are a fantasy that have little to do with real Chileans. Should we as viewers interpret the campaign as a success, or as a selling-out?

The end of the film seems to try to have it both ways. When the NO-campaign has achieved its end and the population is rejoicing, René isn’t. He wanders off, feeling… something. Gael García Bernal’s liquid eyes are welling with emptiness. Is he worried about the future, that the dream he promised will be difficult to deliver, or not so appealing in reality? Or is he simply professionally disappointed that the campaign is over already? And while René’s motivations (merely professional, or political?) and the juxtaposition between the urgent needs of Chileans and the cheesy American dream that the NO-campaign was selling were certainly interesting, I kept feeling that the film was trying to nudge me out of a complex analysis and into firmly agreeing with René’s position. It left me uneasy – what story was the film trying to tell? It definitely felt like a complex and momentous instance of popular resistance was being shoved into a individualistic underdog good-guy versus big-bad bad-guys framework. And I wasn’t entirely sure that I accepted René Saavedra as a good guy.

In fact, I found myself agreeing more with one of the socialist detractors of René’s campaign, when he argued heatedly that “democracy is not a product”. The message of NO seems to be that actually, yes it is. What I can’t make up my mind about is whether or not the film is telling us that this is a good thing. To be clear, while getting rid of Pinochet is undoubtedly a cause for celebration, is the film’s philosophy that politics can be reduced to marketing also something worth celebrating? Ultimately the film felt more Mad Men than Wag the Dog; more of a celebration of marketing men and their craft than a warning about the power these people have over politics, and hence, our lives.

Reading a few reports on reactions from Chile, it seems like the film has prompted similar reactions locally. Larry Rother in the New York Times writes:

“In some quarters of both the political and the artistic worlds, Mr. Larraín, 36, is suspected of disguising himself as an admirer of the No campaign to advance a right-wing agenda that focuses on a heroic outsider instead of collective action by the center and left. ‘Here Larraín shows his more conservative profile,’ Matías Sánchez wrote in the magazine El Ciudadano. The film, he added, reflects ‘the crisis of identity of Pablo Larraín himself, who debates between advertising and film, between right and left, between being an aristocrat in Chile and a political filmmaker abroad.'”

Furthermore, there have been many reactions to the film’s fictionalised depiction of events, particularly the casting the creator of the NO-campaign as a politically apathetic outsider (rather than a politically organised duo who created the campaign through a process of focus groups), and giving too much credit to the media campaign and ignoring the contributions of activists in mobilising the NO-vote. As Genaro Arriagada, director of the NO-campaign says to the New York Times:

 “The film is a gross oversimplification that has nothing to do with reality… The idea that, after 15 years of dictatorship in a politically sophisticated country with strong union and student movements, solid political parties and an active human rights movement, all of a sudden this Mexican advertising guy arrives on his skateboard and says, ‘Gentlemen, this is what you have to do,’ that is a caricature.”

While fabrications are often unavoidable in fictionalised films about historical events, the use of documentary footage in the film, and the lack of detailed knowledge on the part of many international viewers (including myself), can lull foreign audiences into accepting NO‘s version of events. Ironically, the strongest parts of the film for me were the archival segments, prompting the question – why not just make a documentary? Why simplify and depoliticise the anti-Pinochet struggle, remove a lot of the key components of the NO-campaign, and insert “a Mexican advertising guy [on a] skateboard”? Perhaps the accusations about the director’s right-wing agenda or personal ambiguity hold some answers.

On a final note, I have to say that the only character in the film that really got me excited was Veronica. Although given very little screen time, she was the closest representative of the revolutionary determination that was required en mass to oust Pinochet in reality. A fearless, blunt and self-possessed person, I loved how she somehow always managed to be at the centre of any fight with the authorities. Her being the sole female character in the film undoubtedly also contributed to my affection for the character – how refreshing to see the dad left at home to look after the kid while the mother is off being a revolutionary! More Veronicas please, and less skateboarding advertising execs, no matter how groovy their jumpers.

As for what I learned about Chile: well, a smattering about the torture and disappearances and economic hardship under Pinochet; a glimpse of how things might not have been ideal under the country’s communist past; less about the Chilean left’s history than I had hoped; a lot about the historic NO-campaign, although not all of it historically accurate; and a local example of a universal conflict over representations of the past.