For decade upon decade the remains of María Martín’s mother have lain beneath a roadway in Spain, her death unmarked except for her aging daughter’s lonely vigil. Cars pass indifferently across the route, a symbol of how the country paved over its history of brutal repression and political murder under the fascist regime of General Francisco Franco.
Why María Martín’s mother was killed–along with tens of thousands of others heaped in mass graves–and why Spain has resolutely refused to come to terms with this era of blood and torture, are the subject of the documentary The Silence of Others, shortlisted for the Academy Awards. Oscar-winning filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar executive-produced the documentary directed by Almudena Carracedo and her husband, Robert Bahar.
“What we wanted to do with the film was to be an instrument to open that conversation about forgetting, about our past, and also our present,” Carracedo said. “What Spain [experienced] was basically a systematic sort of extermination and repression of people who were not just political opponents, but anyone who dared to think different.”
Unlike the fascist ambitions of Hitler and Mussolini, which were halted in World War II, Franco’s right-wing dictatorship would persist until his death in 1975 (the film points out the support Franco received post-war from Pres. Eisenhower and other U.S. administrations, who viewed him as a useful ally in the Cold War). Franco dominated all aspects of society with his nationalist ideology.
“They would leave dead people by the streets. The whole idea was to create terror, and to deter any opposition,” Carracedo explains. “Teachers, for example, were targeted. Anyone participating in demonstrations.”
Spain made a transition to democracy after Franco’s demise, but as The Silence of Others reveals, there was no “truth and reconciliation”-style movement to address the deep wounds sustained during the Franco years. Instead, an extraordinary Pact of Forgetting became law, passed on a bipartisan basis, that institutionalized impunity, providing amnesty for those guilty of political crimes during Franco’s reign. The Generalissimo’s nationalist allies simply remained in positions of authority in the judiciary, the military and police, free to go about their lives while others continued to mourn their murdered loved ones.
“The film’s trying to explore something really hard to understand for my generation—how can you impose collective amnesia? You could say, ‘Okay let’s leave that behind,’ but really, for people not even being able to share that they were victims, for entire families to hide what happened to them?” Carracedo asks incredulously, adding that descendents of victims “come into some screenings crying, saying, ‘I just learned that my grandfather was executed. I just learned that my grandmother was in exile.’ They’re in their 40s. It really is very hard to understand.”
The filmmakers interviewed victims of the repression, including José María “Chato” Galante, who was tortured as a young man and then, as a result of the Pact of Forgetting, watched his torturer escape any repercussions.
“Our society is today ready to read that black page of their history,” Galante told Deadline at the IDA Awards last month, where the film received the Pare Lorentz Award. “People want to establish those conditions to have a real and true democracy.”
There are other black pages that need to be read, including an almost unbelievable phenomenon that occurred during Franco’s time and continued for years afterward: the systematic theft of newborn children, who were stolen from their mothers and given to Franco loyalists. Tens of thousands—possibly hundreds of thousands—of babies were allegedly snatched and illegally adopted, many of the children never learning their true identities.
“There are some allegations of cases of stolen children as late as the early 90s,” Bahar states. Well after Franco “this sort of suspected system of hospitals, doctors, priests, nuns that had facilitated that kind of theft during the dictatorship was still continuing.”
As the film documents, the Spanish government has proven reluctant to repeal the Pact of Forgetting and has resisted attempts to investigate the horrendous abuses committed in the Franco era. A lawsuit filed in Argentina has pressured the government to comply with investigators, a legal maneuver pursued under the theory that other countries can assert “universal jurisdiction” in cases of crimes against humanity.
As Oscar nomination voting is about to begin, The Silence of Others is playing to packed houses in Madrid and other cities.
“The film creates a space where victims and survivors from across Spain can come. There are people who have never talked about what happened to them necessarily,” Bahar notes. At one screening, he says, “there were a group of people who brought photographs of their loved ones, who are still buried in mass graves.”
That kind of impact has been its own reward for the filmmaking couple, who faced many challenges to finish the documentary.
“We devoted seven years of our life to making the film,” Carracedo shares. Adds Bahar, “Literally for most of the process it was the two of us—Almudena filming, doing the cinematography, and me doing sound, and us producing, directing together. Then, we were raising the funding sort of piece by piece…This was a struggle—we almost ran out of funding at least twice.”
They see the film as not only relevant to Spain, but to many other countries from Europe to the U.S., where some detect a rise in fascist politics, and a retreat from democracy.
“When we were in edit, especially, we understood the sort of the universality of the subject that we were dealing with,” Carracedo observes. “In a way, it is a case study, or like a cautionary tale.”