Wakefield Doc Fest: Breaking the silence on Spain’s dark history

Maria Martin's mother was taken by fascists and executed. her body has never been found.

There is a powerful scene that opens the documentary The Silence of Others.

An elderly woman named Maria Martin is preparing to visit the grave of her mother. She grabs her walker and heads off down the road in her village in rural Spain. Accompanied by her daughter and carrying flowers they walk to the shoulder of a nearby highway and stand behind a barrier.

Maria looks at the road and tells the viewer that her mother is buried under the pavement in a mass grave — all the dead are victims of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

It is a poignant moment full of meaning.

The Silence of Others is being screened at the Wakefield Doc Fest Feb. 22 and 23 at 2 p.m.

Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar

The film tells a story of justice denied during the 40 year rule of Franco in Spain and right up to the present. It is also a story about those survivors of torture and repression fighting back to gain recognition of the need for redress.

In 1977, after the death of the dictator, the Spanish government passed an amnesty law that forgave the crimes of humanity committed on both sides of the political argument in Spain starting with the Civil War in the 1930s. This was called an act of forgetting. But some people couldn’t forget.

The filmmakers, Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar, started work on the film in 2012. In 2010, the story of Spain’s “stolen children” began to come out. That led the marginalization and silencing of victims of many Franco-era crimes, ranging from extrajudicial killings at the end of the Spanish Civil War to torture that took place as recently as 1975.

“We were living in New York and moved back to Spain in 2012,” Carracedo told ARTSFILE in an interview. “We followed the stories of the characters in the film for six years.”

She said that this legacy from the past and Franco’s dictatorship is something that has bothered her. Her parents were raised under Franco, and she grew up in Spain during the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Bahar is an American who has been involved with human rights issues since he was 19.

“Probably because my generation hadn’t done anything about it. The older generation hadn’t either for obvious reasons and the younger generation doesn’t kn0w anything about it. I think that there came a point this had to be the next big story for us.

“We didn’t realize it would take so long. In fact, we put all our stuff in storage thinking it would be a year or two. As you might imagine the stuff is still in storage.”

The film follows the progress of a lawsuit filed against the Spanish government and those responsible for crimes against humanity in Argentina.

“The Argentine lawsuit became a perfect narrative structure to convey the story of the victims.” It brought the crimes of the past into the present.

Ascension Mendietta Ibarra is seen here surrounded by media in the film The Silence of Others. Her father was executed by the Franco regime and buried in a mass grave. She was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in Argentina against the Spanish government. Her one desire, she says in the film, was to have her father’s remains back.

The story of Maria Martin symbolizes the stories of so hundreds of thousands of people, Carracedo said.

“The moment she was showing us that her mother’s remains were under this road and all these cars are going by, it was a metaphor of Spain today. People know there is a mass grave there. They still built a road on it and people drive their cars on that road without acknowledging the past.

“It felt very powerful to put her story at the beginning of the film.”

Why remember?

“I have encountered people who talk about the need to forget. From our point of view, forgetting is an individual choice and right, but a government or a state cannot forget. Society as a whole cannot forget or it is doomed to repeat the same crime.”

Nor can a state forgive crimes, she said.

“The obligation of the state is to prosecute crimes especially when the crimes area against humanity.

“It is a dichotomy. Very often people say a society needs to forget to move forward but there is always a moment when the society needs to look back to understand the present and for young people not to be doomed to repeat this history. I think the moment has arrived for Spain.”

There is political ferment in Spain today, especially centred around Catalan independence.

“And some things were not dealt with (after Franco died).

“Why was there not a purge of the police then. Right now we have police, many of whom are retired, or who have become police chiefs, who worked for the dictatorship. They have been decorated for service, including torturers under Franco. It’s something you wouldn’t expect from a Western democracy,”Carracedo said.

It is the same with the judiciary.

“Judges who condemned people to death in the tribunal of public order under Franco became the judges of the Supreme Court in democratic Spain.”

It is time to go back and clean things up, she believes.

There is even more urgency because of the rise of the extreme right in Europe and in Spain. And there are issues of redress in far away Canada that need to be tackled as well. That’s the universal message of the film.

“When we premiered in Berlin in 2018, the extreme right hadn’t won anything in Spain. Now they are raising their hands in the fascist salute. And there are young people in these crowds not just older people. So it is more important than ever to deal with the past.”

Today the leftist Spanish government is considering a law that would make fascist demonstrations in Spain illegal.

Recently Franco’s body was exhumed from the what is called the Valley of the Fallen and  the names of torturers are being taken down from street signs.

This has all followed the screening of the film in Spain. In many ways, it has become a part of a social movement. When it premiered it was seen in dozens of theatres across the country for four months. It won the Goya prize for best documentary in the Spanish version of the Oscars.

And when it was broadcast on Spanish TV, it was seen by more than a million people. The president of Spain tweeted that everyone should see it.

Part of the wide distribution stems from the involvement of the Spanish director and producer Pedro Almodóvar and his colleagues.

“We showed them a few scenes and they fell in love.”

In these ways, The Silence of Others has become more than a film.

“We thought this was something we had to do. In 2012, this issue was not on the public agenda. It was not in the news. In those days at parties people would ask ‘Why are you doing this? No one cares about it’.

“We felt people should care. And the response to the film proves that people did want to know.” One of the things they are doing is giving the film to schools and universities so young people can see it and learn about the crimes.

“It was very important to frame the message of the film in the present because it’s not something of our grandparents; it is something we are experiencing now. There are victims now. There are survivors now. One of the things that happened under Franco was the taking of children 9from so-called enemies of the state0 to be raised by members of the government.

“We have cases in the 1990s that are emerging. People who were tortured are still alive, so are their torturers. We are trying to frame it as something the whole society needs to understand.”

Their journey with the film will end after a screening at the United Nations of Feb. 26, she said.

“Then it’s on to new things.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.