When Almundena Carracedo and Robert Bahar set out to make “The Silence of Others,” they knew that even though they were revisiting one of Spain’s most painful periods in the brutal four-decade reign of Generalísimo Francisco Franco, they weren’t making a film about the past. Still, they couldn’t have known just how timely their film would be in a world where countries like England, Brazil and the U.S. have been upended by nationalist movements that are eerily reminiscent of the days Franco was in power.
“It’s true that sadly in a way the film has become even more current because of the rise of these strongman regimes and these far-right movements,” says Carracedo. “It is unfortunate, but at the same time, [we thought] how lucky we are that we’re here with this tool to be able to open discussions. All these nostalgic movements rewrite history, so it’s partially nostalgia just for certain parts, but completely covering [up] other parts of the same history.”
The part that’s been largely been covered up is what the directing duo brings front and center in “The Silence of Others,” a fascinating chronicle of a still-unfolding legal process in Spain where descendants of the approximately 600,000 political dissidents who were either imprisoned or executed during Franco’s reign are seeking an end to the long-standing agreement made after his death to put the past behind them by forgiving both war crimes and arrests made for political reasons.
“The Pact of Forgetting,” as the 1977 amnesty agreement is known, may have quelled strife in the short-term, but has created a surreal situation in the present not unlike the one Joshua Oppenheimer uncovered in Indonesia in “The Act of Killing” in which Franco lieutenants who once were in charge of torturing and murdering political prisoners are living next to victims and their relatives as if nothing happened. Yet in recent years, the latter has turned their anger into action, seeking justice not from the Spanish court system, but the world courts, setting up a lawsuit in Argentina targeting 148 torturers in particular that has been successful well before a verdict is even reached since the discovery period has literally unearthed bodies that had been buried, restoring their names to history and giving some small peace of mind to their relatives.
Carracedo and Bahar trace the suit as it steadily grows in plaintiffs from 2010 to 2016, following Jose Galante, a student in 1968 whose opposition to the government landed him in jail, and others as they rally support for the case all around Spain, with each new town revealing more people who don’t know what happened to loved ones who disappeared or in the case of some, had children taken away from them at birth and given to families whose beliefs were in line with Franco. By simply filming sit-down interviews with those who have suffered such loss, the filmmakers create a historical record that assures that future generations of Spaniards will know of the atrocities committed under the Franco regime, but they bring to bear the same energy and passion as they find in their subjects who live with their trauma every day, closing the gap between the past and present and vividly illustrating how neglecting ugly memories only give them more power.
Just shy of a year since premiering at the Berlin Film Festival, “The Silence of Others” is still making headlines, recently selected as part of the shortlist of films that will go on to compete for Best Documentary at the Oscars — and already, opening up a wave of screenings across the country (see below) — and Carracedo and Bahar spoke of the years-long effort to get the film made, continually refining the film throughout and discovering how universal the problem of forgetting really is.
Almundena Carracedo: There were two beginnings. I grew up in Spain and for a long time, [as] we were making films about other parts of the world, there was a big issue growing inside of me that I had to deal with in my heart — the human rights violations in my own country. In 2010, we just had our daughter and the issue of stolen children broke out in Spain and that’s when [Robert and I] looked at each other and said, “Okay, this is going to be our next film.” Obviously, we didn’t know it was going to be so long. We were living in Brooklyn and we put everything into storage in New Jersey and of course, we thought it was going to be a short journey, but documentaries are like this.
Given how sprawling the court case becomes, was there a central focus from the start?
Robert Bahar: We knew that the film is really about this choice of forgetting, and the way victims and survivors have been silenced for 40 years, so from the beginning, we knew we wanted the film to be about that silence and people deciding to break that silence, [and] to make a film that takes place in the present, something that actively shows the consequences of this forgetting. So the Argentine lawsuit, a six-year process with its ups and downs and with its internal drama, lets us see that this is a struggle that continues. It’s about the present and even the future, and with that court case as a skeleton, we could build in the historical context that you need or look back into specific cases, but the film is never a historical film in that sense, we hope.
Almundena Carracedo: Yeah, we tried to look at the past, but always with a mirror into the present to reflect the audience wherever you are. In Spain, it rings different, but it also rings true to different situations in other parts of the world where there is a legacy of the past that a country or a community has decided to leave behind and not to deal with.
It is striking when you make these transitions from the present-day to the past, shooting an area such as Pedro Bernardo where the new footage is shot from the same angle as the archival. In order to do that, were you collecting a lot of archival first?
Almudena Carracedo: In terms of process – and this is not your question, but it goes with it — we film as a two-person crew. I do the camera and Robert does the sound and that allows us to create intimacy, that feeling that the viewer is there and then when you film for a long period of time, you really forget the camera. So when we had all this material, we started editing. Even in the assembly materials, we started realizing the context was important, but six months into the edit, we had a very beautiful, more impressionistic [version of the film] that had a lot less context. [We found] people weren’t able to connect with the characters and we didn’t understand why, so we realized context and therefore [archival footage], and also all the parts with my [voiceover] – that’s my voice in the film — were important to create the landscape for the experience of our characters so that people could understand what it was to feel [like you were] in their skin.
Robert Bahar: And the Pedro Bernardo example that you brought up is great because we were trying to find archival footage [where] within each of the personal stories, the history could come out, so at the beginning, there are a few shots of Franco and Hitler and you get this general context, but wherever we could find material [relating to the personal stories] – that was very hard to find [laughs], that took you not just to 1960, but took you to that town ”like how did Maria Martin [whose mother died when she was six by the side of the road] feel walking in that town,” that really was our approach. But it’s a laborious process. There’s a lot of filmotecas in Spain and then there’s a whole process of licensing material and getting new telecines done, but all of that detailed work was worth it because you have that magic moment, just as you’re describing where past and present collide.
It seems to revolve around three central characters – Jose Galante, Maria Martin and Maria Mercedes Bueno, who believes her baby was taken away at birth – did you have a good idea from the start about who you should follow?
Almudena Carracedo: When you film patiently for many years, you’re following some stories and seeing where the stories take you, so we started following several characters, and many more that are not in the film, but some other stories came up in the middle – like Ascension [Mendieta Ibarra] story, we went with her to Buenos Aires and when she testified in front of the judge and said, “I want my father’s bones,” everyone thinks, “Poor woman. She’s not going to get her father’s bones.” But then we continued following [her case] and then it became the end of the film, so it’s a process that’s instinctive, but also requires a lot of thought. We have a document that’s super-long – it goes to the basement of this building [we’re in now], called “Reconceptualization.” Every time we’d have ideas, we’d just write there and then in the edit, you start seeing how you can get deeper into the characters. At the end, there’s about nine main characters in the film, and we spent a year-and-a-half editing to make it work.
Robert Bahar: Once the Ascension [Mendieta Ibarra story became part of the film, that’s when we felt that emotionally there would be a story with a shape of a film, so it was after that took place in 2016 that we really started editing in earnest and felt like we could build a film. And it’s important to just mention how much of a struggle it is to make a film like this. [laughs] It’s definitely a film we had to fight for. Even the way it was financed, it was phase by phase. You’d get a little bit of money to do development and then you’d make a trailer and then you raise the money for production and then you have to prove to people you have something with a rough cut…
Almudena Carracedo: There were a lot of funding applications. A lot. But we made it. [laughs]
I’m afraid to ask since it would require any more work, but since you’ve collected all these video testimonies, would you consider using the footage the way the Shoah Foundation does to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive?
Almundena Carracedo: It’s in our proposals! [laughs] Because we filmed 450 hours and [have] tons and tons of testimony, so you’re right that we do feel a responsibility to do something with that material. Creating an impact with the film — to make people think and to make people act as well — is really important for us and we are going to be on impact mode for at least one more year, working on everything the film can do in the world, and to share that material and having a different impact phase where people can actually see a lot of those testimonies is really important.
Robert Bahar: And we knew If you want to have an impact here [in Spain], it’s important to have that trajectory outside, whether it’s awards or reviews or festivals, and what that meant to us was wow, it both is working as a movie, it’s working as cinema and it’s working within the human rights community, so [we’ve spent] eight to 10 months from Berlin [where] it was so well-received and won both the audience award for Panorama and the peace prize, to travel [and] every place we go, people come up to us and say, [for instance] at Hoc Docs, “Well, this reminds us of the stories about the schools for indigenous children in Canada…”
Amundena Carracedo: Everywhere we go everyone says that…
Robert Bahar: In Finland, there’s a similar history. We went to Africa and we had amazing reactions.
Amundena Carracedo: And in the U.S., there are huge discussions obviously about the removal of confederate monuments and internment, so that’s been really powerful to see that people make it their own and use it to reflect on their own cultures. We just had our theatrical release in Spain and it’s a huge phenomenon. We were the third best average per screen just after the [“Fantastic Beasts”] film, and this is a documentary film, so it’s gone beyond a movement where people are seeing it who are not sympathetic or even thought or talked about this before. People bring their friends from high school [or] their parents. There was a viral video that was seen three million times about the film in a week, so it really is beautiful for us because obviously when you spend seven years of your life working on something to see not just that it works as a movie or that it moves you, but as a Spaniard, I feel I did my duty, and as filmmakers, we feel very satisfied and really humbled by everything that’s happened.
“The Silence of Others” will screen in various cities in the weeks ahead including Los Angeles on January 8th at the Pasadena Playhouse and the Monica Film Center at 7 pm, New York on January 8th at the Alamo Drafthouse at 6:30 pm and January 11th at the 6:45 pm, Phoenix at the Harkins Shea 14 on January 11th at 1:30 pm, San Francisco at the Smith San Rafael Film Center at January 13th at 12 pm, Austin at the Alamo Drafthouse Mueller on January 14th at 10 pm, Dallas at the Alamo Drafthouse Lake Highlands on January 19th at 4 pm, Denver on January 22nd at the Alamo Drafthouse Sloans Lake at 6 pm, Raleigh, North Carolina on January 22nd at the Alamo Drafthouse Raleigh at 7 pm. The film will open up in wider release in the spring.