Political Film Society - Newsletter #199 - June 15, 2004

June 15, 2004


In Operation Condor, which involved eight Latin American countries from the 1960s to the 1980s, thousands of political dissidents and leftists were rounded up by the police and never heard from again. Military and police practiced torture techniques that were learned while they were students at the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Panamá and, on arriving home, purchased instruments of torture from American manufacturers. Argentina had the largest number of victims (some 30,000) in the period from the military coup of 1976 until 1983, when the military stepped down after their disgrace in the 1982 war with Britain over the Falkland/Malvinas Islands. The film Imagining Argentina, based on the 1987 novel by Lawrence Thornton and directed by Christopher Hampton, depicts the horrors of that period in a manner far more powerfully than did the 1985 movie The Official Story. When the film begins, a fictional Carlos Rueda (played by Antonio Banderas) whispers that the Argentine military told the people to forget what they did, but he cannot do so. Early in the film, Carlos's wife Cecilia (played by Emma Thompson) is abducted by plainclothes police, presumably because as a journalist she printed a story about schoolchildren who were arrested for their temerity in protesting an increase in busfare. Carlos is so mortified by her loss that he begins to have visions about her as well as about the disappearances of relatives of some of those who have been protesting in the Plaza de Mayo. He is able to tell some of them about the fate of their missing loved ones, who often had no political views that might have provoked the authorities. The visions are sometimes painfully vivid, demonstrating various types of torture to which they were subjected--beatings, electric shocks, holding heads under water, and even rape. In his quest to find his wife, on one occasion he drives into the Pampas, where he stumbles onto a lone house occupied by two Auschwitz survivors (played by Claire Bloom and John Wood), whose story of survival gives him courage and hope. In another episode, he requests to see General Guzmán (played by Anton Lesser), who holds the top position in the junta, and demands that his wife and others must be released from detention. The general then orders his minions to abduct Teresa (played by Leticia Dolera), Carlos's young daughter, who is raped and then shot when her captors have grown tired of her.

On leaving his audience with the general, he predicts that "imagination" will destroy the junta's rule. As a director of a children's theater, he then writes a script about a red plague; when the character playing the plague takes off his mask, he reveals a military officer with skin cancer. As a result, the theater is shut down, the ad marquee for the play is machinegunned, and Silvio (played by Rubén Blades), the nonpolitical business manager of the theatre, is abducted, tortured, and then dropped far out into the ocean. Carlos, nevertheless, continues his quest to find Cecilia and to encourage the protesters never to forget the obscenities of the military rule after its inevitable collapse. Whether he finds his wife in fact or in fantasy is for filmviewers to judge, but the poster for the film contains actual photographs of several of the disappeared, along with dates and names. The film ends with titles containing a statistical count of the number of disappeared in more than a dozen countries around the world, including 90,000 in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, as compiled by Amnesty International, and a warning that governments are causing disappearances, even today. Less courageously, no picture of Guantánamo appears on the screen behind the statistics, and no connection is identified between Operation Condor and Henry Kissinger. However, in mid-April 2001, Argentine judge Rodolfo Canicoba authorized the arrest of the former Argentinian junta leader, Jorge Videla, as well as Manuel Contreras, former head of Chile's Directorate of National Intelligence, and former Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner, all three deeply involved in Operation Condor. Accordingly, the Political Film Society has nominated Imagining Argentina for two awards--as the year's best film exposé and best film on human rights.  MH

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Imagining Argentina
Lawrence Thornton

Set in Buenos Aires during the rule of the generals and their brutal policy of abducting and obliterating those who opposed them, the narrative tells of playwright Carlos Rueda, who suddenly finds himself with the power to "see" the disappeared ones and their fates.