December 6, 2013
Movie shows dictatorship’s ‘sinister’ legacy
The repression unleashed during the last Argentine dictatorship was both secret and public. A new documentary, Dixit, reignites the debate over the role played by media in using information in order to legitimize the crimes committed by the military government that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983.
In Argentina, there were around 500 clandestine detention centres (CDC) spread throughout the country. Police stations and military garrisons were turned into concentration camps but also schools and hospitals, as portrayed in the documentary Dixit, filmed by Alcides Chiesa and Carlos Martínez. Experts say that the clandestine detention centres worked as mechanisms to inoculate the rest of society with terror.
Political scientist Pilar Calveiro, a dictatorship survivor, defined the clandestine detention centres as a “well-known secret.” The question that remains is what the media’s role was.
In their documentary, Chiesa and Martínez alternate testimonies from direct victims, survivors, neighbours and a student at the Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA) who was forced to witness some of the crimes perpetrated there but never returned to the camp until after he was asked by the filmmakers, with fragments of the news.
What was the role played by the media during the dictatorship?
Carlos Martínez: First, you should take into account that the Armed Forces took control of the TV channels.
Alcides Chiesa: Yes, but after examining all the material we gathered, you also notice that journalists did much more than they were expected to. I understand that they might have wanted to protect their jobs but.
CM: Yes, journalism was one of the sectors that provided support to the dictatorship along with businesspeople and the Catholic Church.
By examining the role played by the media, it is also possible to realize that society had some insight into what was going on in the country, don’t you agree?
AC: Yes, possibly. In a fragment, you can see Monsignor Victorio Bonamín (a military bishop) explaining what was happening.
CM: I think that without the Catholic Church’s approval, officers wouldn’t have dared do what they did. For instance, snatching children. But there was also a part of the Catholic Church that suffered the repression.
History is full of stories
Martínez and Chiesa met when they were studying to become filmmakers. Then Chiesa was kidnapped by the dictatorship squads and taken to several clandestine detention centres. When he was about to be released, the Papal Nuncio phoned his mother to inform her. That was not the only contact he had with Catholic Church authorities while he was captive. He met priest Christian Von Wernich, an iconic repression figure, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2007.
“I saw him visiting his nephew in jail and taking the guy out with him. No doubts of the power Von Wernich had,” Chiesa told the Herald. His testimony was useful to prove the priest’s guilt in the historical trial held in La Plata city.
Like many survivors, Chiesa appeared several times before court to retell his ordeal. The first time was at the trial against the Junta members in 1985 but those are not sweet memories.
“We were terrified; we received phone calls to threaten us. Besides that, the press also pressured us and made us feel afraid,” he said, adding: “for instance, when I joined the National Commission on the Forced Disappearance of Persons (Conadep) to identify where I had been held at, a reporter asked me what I had done to deserve it, so I replied: ‘the problem is not what I did, the problem is what the military government did.’ That was a horrible situation.”
And the role played by the Judiciary?
AC: Well, the Court that tried the military Junta members was composed of judges that had served during the dictatorship. I felt as if I were questioned by a police chief. It was a nightmare. Nothing to do with the trials that are being held nowadays.
Detention centres: Clandestine at all?
“There are several documentaries on individual cases but we wanted to make a comprehensive one, one that could be used to analyze the repression here,” Carlos Martínez explained to the Herald.
Through different testimonies, they narrated what happened at nine emblematic clandestine detention centres: Vesubio, Posadas Hospital, Ford co. plant and Pozo de Arana in Buenos Aires province, ESMA and Club Atlético in BA City, La Perla in Córdoba province, the Little School in Neuquén province and the Little School in Tucumán province, which was the first concentration camp in the country, opened in 1975 while the so-called Independence Operation was carried out in the Northern part of Argentina.
“We wanted to show that there was a country that suffered the military dictatorship, whose repression went far beyond combatant sectors,” Chiesa added.
There are two striking fragments in the documentary: when a survivor from the Posadas hospital tells a group of workers what had happened there and when a survivor from Tucumán’s Little School tells a group of schoolgirls why she was crying. How can it be possible that people working or studying at former concentration camps do not know their history?
AC: From today’s standpoint, it was absurd the idea of a clandestine detention centre in a hospital. In Tucumán, we were not welcomed when we arrived and they even made us listen to a military march.
CM: Thirty years are too much. That’s why memory is so important.
Why did you decide to finish your documentary with Jorge Julio López, the survivor forcibly disappeared in 2006 after testifying against former police chief Miguel Etchecolatz?
AC: To show that these sinister shadows are there and that they exist yet.
CM: We wanted to highlight that it is not a healed wound. His second forced disappearance took place during democracy and we wanted that to be known.