For the filmmakers, this 95-minute documentary is an attempt to be able to deal with the ghosts of the past, when Francisco Franco ruled Spain with an iron fist, engaging in violence and crimes against humanity.
Almudena Carracedo, 46, from Spain, and Robert Bahar, 44, from the US, are a couple who “made two films and a child together”. Their captivating documentary The Silence of Others took six years to make; it is a harrowing look at the victims of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s regime that lasted for four decades, from 1939 to 1975.
The film introduces several protagonists, such as an elderly lady who needs the assistance of a walker to stand, yet still leaves flowers by the roadside grave of her mother killed by regime soldiers and denied a burial when she was just a child. There are middle-aged women who were told their babies were dead after childbirth, only to find out they had been stolen by the state, and there are aging activists seeking justice who have been tortured in Franco’s prisons when they were just young students eager for change.
As dark as the subject matter is, the film isn’t. It utilises the Spanish protagonists’ struggle to bring their oppressors to justice as a spring point, using the lawsuit they launched in Argentina as the central focus of the narrative, and treats the audience to an incredible emotional and intellectual experience.
Executive produced by the Almodovar brothers, The Silence of Others won the Peace Prize and the Audience Award at Berlinale in 2018, as well as a 2019 Goya Award for Best Documentary (Spain’s equivalent to the Oscar). On the night the film was due to be screened on national television, Spain’s prime minister mentioned it on Twitter, writing “Only with memory and conscience can we look forward, continue to advance in democracy and freedoms.” The Silence of Others was a trending topic that night, with millions tuning in.
The Silence of Others was shown in the always well-curated Istanbul Film Festival that recently ended, but it can be seen around the world in special screenings, and once again in Istanbul on April 27.
How did you pick the subject of the film?
Almudena Carracedo: I think the subject of the film picked me. This issue, because it was completely forgotten in Spain, rather in denial, it was not something we discussed or organised around or even talked about. As I started making other films, in other parts of the world, there was this growing pain inside me. It was like, how can I make films in other parts of the world and my own country has this issue?
There came a point where through that pain that grew bigger there was an incident – the incident in any movie where something starts, right, which is that in 2010 the story of the stolen children in Spain kind of exploded, especially in sensational media. We had just had our daughter so reading those stories as new parents for us was painful to the core. It was the moment that triggered us to say “This is what we need to do next.”
We moved to Spain, to Madrid. My parents are there so they could take care of our child. It’s important as filmmakers to figure out what to do with your children when you’re filming together in the field, you know.
When you started filming did you think it would become such a massive project? It would take six years of your life, and overtake everything else?
Robert Bahar: The truth is – I would have to say Almudena always thinks that we found something that would take a year, right? “OK, this project will take a year!” Once we started filming, and once we found the lawsuit, we realised that this was a massive story. Also as we started to interview people and then film scenes with them, we realised that the scope of the film had to be really big.
Because it would take that to convey what people had gone through and the level of suffering so for a long time the great challenge that we felt was “How can we make a film that will measure up to the suffering that the people that we were filming have gone through?”
How did you pick which characters to portray?
AC: As we started filming the lawsuit, we started encountering people who were becoming part of the lawsuit as plaintiffs. A lot of the people that we filmed were people that had made the decision to break the silence and to become active agents in this history, not just passive subjects.
Some of the characters that we filmed were in the process. Like for example, the old woman in the road. But it was through the process as we see in the film that her daughter decides to take the baton and continue their struggle. That’s why we always say a lot of the characters chose us as well, by participating more, by engaging, by being part of the story – they ended up being filmed more for the film and they turned out to be characters.
How did you strike the right emotional balance for the film? It’s complex and affecting, but not sensationalistic.
RB: The editing of the film took 14 months. I mean really it took 26 months because someone spent a year building a database of the material; then we spent 14 months editing.
So a tremendous challenge was what is the balance of the film, because you have character stories, you have their personal experiences, then you have this bigger story and this context that you need. Eventually we discovered that the emotions were so powerful that they could be restrained; a little bit would go a long way.
Also that the emotions only really worked if you had enough context to understand: this didn’t happen to just one person. There are over a 100,000 bodies in mass graves. There wasn’t one child that was stolen there were 30,000 or perhaps hundreds of thousands of children who were stolen.
So we realised that that film both had to lay out the personal stories, and piece by piece it had to assemble this bigger puzzle of how all of these different crimes are connected and why they’ve been covered up. Why there’s this silence and forgetting and denial about what has happened.
AC: At the same time, I don’t know if this is a direct answer but we wanted the film to be beautiful. For a very important reason: For a human rights documentary to be able to reach beyond those who already know the subject, we needed the film to work as a film. That’s why we always talk about it as a film.
It’s a documentary film but it’s essentially a film; it uses the tools of film: poetry, beauty, cinematography, emotion, empathy to convey the story. And that’s because it was very important for us that this sort of puzzle with all of these things together on one hand emotional and therefore directed to the heart. On the other hand very intellectual, directed to the head.
We wanted to make it make us feel and then think. But first feel. We need to feel first in order to understand the complexity of the subject and to understand our characters. Because only if we understand our characters we are able to empathise and to strive to change the situation.
Can you talk about the Pact of Forgetting a little bit?
AC: During the transition from 40 years of dictatorship to democracy there was a pact. Just to explain the reason is that obviously the Spanish dictatorship had what was called transition by transaction. So the dictatorship negotiated itself out of power with certain conditions. One of them was impunity. The amnesty law of 1977 basically exonerated or created impunity, judicial impunity, for all those who had committed crimes during the Franco dictatorship.
Along the judicial law there was a more or less sort of pact, an establishment of a pact, of forgetting, the Pact of Silence (Pacto del olvido). Where the society, meaning political parties, decided to impose a forgetting which means this is not going to be talked about, this is not going to be discussed, this is not going to be taught in schools, and it’s not going to be in the political agenda. And that’s exactly what happened.
We have had 40 years of democracy [since the Franco regime]. Kids, children who grew up didn’t learn anything in school; that’s why the film is so absolutely for many people an epiphany. It’s suddenly understanding that their country is not what they thought. And that’s simply because they had not known anything that’s in the film. They didn’t understand, they didn’t – simply, they didn’t know.
For us, this film is a way, as I was saying, to make things visible and to create a conversation. I think what’s very important, from my point of view, is that we’re not trying to judge anything, we’re trying to steer a conversation that’s very urgent and very needed today for the health of our democracy. To be able to deal with these ghosts of the past that are present.
The past doesn’t go away that fast, right? There are the children of, the grandchildren of, even the great grandchildren of – they inherit that pain and also the struggle for dignity. It was very important for us that the film could be part of a conversation about our democracy and about these human rights violations that continue to occur against – again, it’s not other people, it’s our neighbours. Our teacher, the foodmonger, like the people who surround us are suffering today.
Would you like to explain the idea of “universal jurisdiction”?
RB: The idea of universal jurisdiction is that there are some crimes, crimes against humanity but also other crimes that are defined slightly differently, crimes that are so grave that the entire international community should be worried about them wherever they occur. And that means that if those crimes occur somewhere, or if a state commits those crimes against its own people and will not investigate those crimes, then there are in international law certain provisions that allow judges in other countries to pursue those crimes.
What’s interesting is that in Spain, when a Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzon, was one of the pioneers in using universal jurisdiction to pursue human rights crimes and he issued an indictment for former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet which is part of why Pinochet was detained in London for more than 500 days.
So that idea of universal jurisdiction… actually the same judge, Garzon, then tried to investigate, in his own country, the crimes of Spain’s dictatorship. When he was blocked from doing that, victims and survivors and human rights lawyers in Spain said “OK, we’re going to use the same principle, universal jurisdiction” and they found a judge in Argentina who would open an investigation under universal jurisdiction into the crimes in Spain.
We’re in an international moment where in many parts of the world there are more authoritarian regimes emerging. So I think it’s interesting for people who are fighting for human rights causes to see universal jurisdiction as a tool where victims and survivors can actually be protagonists if they are blocked from seeking justice at home there are ways to go abroad and try to pursue justice.
Do you think there’s a risk of a government saying they don’t recognise the result of an international trial?
RB: Actually that’s exactly what happened in Spain. I mean in a certain sense the Argentine judge Maria Cervino De Cubria has issued extradition requests, say “I want the accused torturer Billy the Kid, I want these other people extradited to Argentina.”
Spain has done extradition hearings and they decided “No, based on our laws, we’re not going to extradite.” In some ways Spain has cooperated with the investigation and in other ways the investigation has been blocked.
But the same thing happened in the Pinochet case. Pinochet was detained in London; ultimately they couldn’t get him extradited to Spain for a trial but the process of the investigation and the process of people being detained is another way that can chip away at this kind of impunity.
They call it the boomerang effect. So what’s happening abroad boomerangs back and comes home and so part of what the plaintiffs in Spain are doing is they continue to pursue the Argentine lawsuit; there are more and more plaintiffs. But they also keep trying to use the impact of the lawsuit – all of the press that it has generated, all of the attention from international organisations – to put pressure and now again they’re filing cases at home and some of those cases are starting to advance.
The question will be these two things will happen in parallel. Maybe the Argentine lawsuit will advance and maybe it’ll be the cases at home that ultimately are going to help break the amnesty law. And maybe neither those judicial processes won’t advance. But all of that energy together will help the people push for a change in this amnesty law and so the universal jurisdiction process also has that kind of impact even if it doesn’t ultimately reach trial, a verdict,
What's the latest happening with the lawsuit?
AC: Right now, the lawsuit is waiting for Spain to accept an extradition. One of the people indicted has agreed to go to Argentina to testify. So let’s see what happens in September. It is moving forward. I think it has been blocked by the Spanish government in terms of being able to pursue those indictments and those interrogations. But there are more and more plaintiffs joining the lawsuit.
As Robert mentioned the other part of that lawsuit, the other side of the coin of that lawsuit, is that in Spain three judges have accepted lawsuits already; individual lawsuits against certain crimes and now all those are moving up all the way to the supreme courts. We’re going to see what happens.
When we started the film eight years ago, people would tell us “What are you doing? This is going nowhere! No one cares about this issue, these lawsuits are going to go nowhere.” Obviously eight years later it’s a completely different situation. This is on the political agenda, this is on the cultural agenda, we just had this amazing broadcast and there are progress being made on every front: cultural, judicial, political, social.