Our Disappeared/Nuestros Desaparecidos

September 21, 2009

by

Juan Mandelbaum

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About the Documentary

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.


 

The Filmmakers

Juan Mandelbaum
In addition to his work as an acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Juan Mandelbaum has also worked as a teacher, curator and consultant. He is president and creative director of GEOVISION, a Massachusetts multicultural communications agency.

Mandelbaum’s work has been broadcast over a variety of venues, from American Playhouse to Sesame Street. He has been nominated for and won numerous Emmy Awards, CINE Golden Eagles, Gabriel Awards, the Chris Award and the Silver Apple Award. Mandelbaum was a producer/director at WGBH-Boston on Americas, a 10-part series on Latin America and the Caribbean for PBS and Channel 4-UK. He also co-produced In Women’s Hands and produced Builders of Images for Channel 4-UK.

Mandelbaum’s independent productions have been aired on PBS, screened in many festivals and are in worldwide distribution. His films have received grants and funding from the Sundance Institute, ITVS, Latino Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts/Massachusetts Cultural Council. Among his independent films are Caetano in Bahia, Ringl and Pit, A New World of Music, and the Poetry Heaven series on the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.

Mandelbaum has served as a reader and panelist for ITVS, Latino Public Broadcasting, Massachusetts Cultural Council, New Hampshire Council on the Arts and the New England Film and Video Festival.

Mandelbaum studied sociology in his native Argentina and worked as a journalist, photographer and educator until he left for the United States in 1977 to escape the military dictatorship that had taken over the country. He holds an MA in Communications from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1998, the university gave him the Merrill Panitt Citizenship Award, which is awarded every year to a distinguished alumnus. Mandelbaum is past president of International Film Seminars, organizers of the Flaherty Film Seminars.

David Carnochan
David Carnochan has a long track record in editing award-winning long format documentaries for PBS. He has been a core member of Richard Gordon’s and Carma Hinton’s Long Bow Group since its inception. He has edited all of their films about China, including two Peabody Award winners, Small Happiness and The Gate of Heavenly Peace, which had its premiere at the New York Film Festival. David also edited two hours of the Peabody Award-winning series I’ll Make Me a World for Blackside, Inc. In addition to working on numerous short and feature-length independent documentaries that have appeared on PBS, he has edited for FRONTLINE and NOVA.

Gustavo Moretto
Pianist and composer Gustavo Moretto is considered to be one of the most relevant Argentine musicians of the last 30 years. A native of Buenos Aires, he started his music career as a trumpet player, composer and pianist for Alma y Vida, one of that country’s most famous bands. He later left the band to form Alas (together with Alex Zuker and Carlos Riganti), where he was the composer and keyboard player. Gustavo toured extensively through Argentina and Chile and recorded six LPs (for RCA and EMI). He also worked as a studio sessionist and guest performer with many prominent Argentine musicians.

In 1979, due to the generalized repressive climate, Moretto decided to leave Argentina and traveled to the United States to pursue formal training in composition. He holds a BA from the New England Conservatory and a PhD in Music Composition from Columbia University. He is currently a professor in charge of the instrumental program at LaGuardia Community College in New York City.

Filmmaker Juan Mandelbaum and Moretto have collaborated on several films, including Ringl and Pit, A New World of Music and Poetry Heaven.

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