“My camp colleague Jorge was among the first to disappear, dragged from the school where he worked. Was his work towards organizing a teachers’ union a sentence of death? There was no hearing, no trial, no charges.”
—Juan Mandelbaum, filmmaker
Like many modern-day quests, OUR DISAPPEARED/NUESTROS DESAPARECIDOS starts with an innocent search on Google. But what begins with filmmaker Juan Mandelbaum’s mild curiosity about a former college sweetheart soon leads to a gripping personal journey into a world of brutality, repression, torture and death as he traces the fate of an estimated 30,000 Argentine citizens known as los desaparecidos, ”the disappeared.”
In 1976, as the United States celebrated its 200th anniversary as a democracy, a far-different scenario was unfolding six thousand miles away in Argentina, where a military junta seized power in March of that year.
The ensuing seven-year crusade, known as Argentina’s Dirty War, unleashed a vicious campaign of state-authorized kidnapping, detention, torture and murder designed to quash a radical leftist movement powered by the idealistic dreams of Argentina’s young people and progressive leaders. Because the corpses of the disappeared were secretly disposed of, the junta that ruled Argentina until 1983 denied its role in the disappearances.
But for those who lived through the terror, the memories of the dead cry out for their stories to be told. Mandelbaum undertakes this mission with painstaking sensitivity, aided by home movies and rare archival footage from news organizations, the military junta and from inside the revolution itself. Interviews with surviving family members and the now-grown children of the disappeared reveal the loss of loved ones, and call attention to the countless contributions these young, bright citizens might have made—young people whose bodies now lie buried in mass graves or at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and the Rio de la Plata where they were thrown from military airplanes.
Before the repression, Juan Mandelbaum was an idealistic university student studying sociology and working with impoverished Buenos Aires youth whom he took every summer to a camp in Patagonia. At the time, many of his socially conscious peers, including fellow camp counselors Jorge Chinetti and Mini Viñas, were already entangled in a far-flung net that eventually ensnared them along with tens of thousands of others—union organizers, students, journalists and workers who believed in the dream of a more equitable Argentina.
The filmmaker escaped the pervasive atmosphere of intimidation by moving to the United States in 1977. Thirty years later, seeing Patricia’s name listed as one of the desaparecidos compelled Mandelbaum to journey back to Argentina to find out what happened to her and others he knew who had disappeared.
Mandelbaum explores the motivations that led his friends to make the choices they did and traces their last days of misery during the brutal crackdown. Along the way, he discovers that Patricia had become involved with the Montoneros, a massive leftist movement of mostly young people who did extensive political work but also supported armed struggle. Although she was probably no more than a foot soldier, Argentina’s repressive regime was ruthless, hunting down, torturing and killing even the mildest dissident.
Because Mandelbaum knew intimately the victims he documents, their portraits are vivid and their suffering at the hands of the torturers is visceral, not obscured by the passage of time or anonymity.
In today’s wired world, all of humanity now watches in real time as repressive regimes seek to squelch those who rise up against totalitarianism. Argentina’s Dirty War, however, was cloaked in obscurity. Through Mandelbaum’s patient re-creation of events that occurred more than 30 years ago, the voices of los desaparecidos are not lost to the ages. They whisper encouragement and caution from their watery graves and shallow mass burial plots. They warn us that when brutal regimes are allowed to terrorize and repress the dreams of citizens, the damage and the suffering last for generations.
Filmmaker Juan Mandelbaum provided an update in January 2009 on what some of the people featured in OUR DISAPPEARED/NUESTROS DESAPARECIDOS have been doing since filming ended:
Patricia’s sister, Alejandra “Ale,” who was very young when her sister “Pato” was abducted, has turned her home into a yoga and wellness center. Patricia’s friends Maria and Mercedes came to a screening of OUR DISAPPEARED/NUESTROS DESAPARECIDOS at Ale’s studio. At that screening, Mercedes reunited with Claudia, a former colleague of Patricia and hers at the Cuban Embassy, whom she had not seen in 32 years.
Successful businessman Rafa, who lost his three children—Valeria, Jose and Martin—during the seven-year repression, and who once worked with the filmmaker’s father, sold his sailboat and spends a lot of time on his farm. His grandchildren Antonio and Tania published a book on the artist Bobby Aizenberg, their grandmother’s second husband. Antonio and his wife had a baby boy, Mariano. Tania is working with her husband Facundo on a film on American rabbi Marshall Meyer, a critical figure in the human rights movement in Argentina.
Ruth, the mother of Marcelo, a victim of the military dictatorship, is still teaching exercise classes and traveling. She has spent summer holidays with Juan Manuel and her great-grandson Marcelito, who is her pride and joy. Juan Manuel’s bookstore is doing well, and he acquired a space for functions and folk concerts. Ruth’s son Claudio, who lives in New York, came to the Lincoln Center screening where he saw the film for the first time.
Ines, who was only months old when her mother, former camp counselor Mini, was taken by a goon squad, discovered at the age of 10 what had really happened to her parents. She and her husband Derek have had a baby boy, named Lorenzo after his great-grandfather and a disappeared uncle (Mini’s brother). Ines continues to work for a non-profit that advocates for the educational rights of children with disabilities and the incarcerated.
Jose Pablo Feinmann, a writer and historian in Argentina who was part of the Peronist Left as a youth, continues to write feverishly. One of his latest works is a comprehensive history of Peronism.
Federal Police Sergeant Héctor Julio “Turco Julian” Simón, who appeared on an Argentine television interview show, was tried and convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. His TV interview was critical in his conviction.
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