‘The Silence of Others’ gives voice to the past

May 21, 2019, 1:00 a.m.

A cluster of lonely statues stand on a hill in Spain, overlooking a valley. This monument is one of the only memorials in the country commemorating victims of the rule of dictator Francisco Franco. Built just recently, they were shot shortly after completion; through the bullet holes one can catch glimpses of the Spanish countryside. This introduction to “The Silence of Others” (Spanish: “El silencio de los otros”) foreshadows its powerful depiction of a country struggling to deal with trauma, with recovery from a long dictatorship and with the virtues of remembering and forgetting.

The documentary tells the story of a class-action lawsuit that aims to obtain justice for people who suffered or whose family members suffered under Franco’s regime. The movie distinguishes itself from other similar documentaries or films that track teams of lawyers or journalists in search of justice in that it does not build to a truly satisfying ending. In fact, the plot, so to speak, follows the lawsuit over years, tracking its slow successes and frustrating failures equally. It is not an outburst of trust in institutional processes of change, but a depiction of the realities and difficulties faced by those who seek to forge progress.

The documentary is an exploration of trauma, on a personal as well as on a nationwide level. It depicts a Spain that has dealt with the collapse of the Franco regime and its subsequent pivot into democracy by repressing all memories of its harrowing past. In 1977, the Spanish government signed La Ley de la Amnistia, or the Amnesty Law, which exonerated political prisoners from the Franco years, as well as those who worked for Franco’s cruel regime. Such is the state of affairs that, as one of the plaintiffs demonstrates in the film, a victim of the regime is forced to live in peace a few steps away from the home of his torturer, who lives a normal retired life in Madrid. The film shows the disturbing fact that, as the country has attempted to move on from painful memories, it has forgotten that some cannot forget.

Hope for the victims comes through a precedent established in the aftermath of another dictatorship. Although Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator of Chile, had been living with immunity in Chile, a Spanish judge, named Baltasar Garzón, issued a warrant for his arrest when Pinochet traveled to London to receive medical treatment. He was arrested and put on trial in Chile for international crimes against humanity. Thus, the human rights lawyers representing the victims or relatives of the murdered try follow this mold and have another country arrest the perpetrators of violence in Franco’s regime. They find an ally in Judge Servini from Argentina, yet the Spanish government does not make it easy for them by any means.

The film works its way into the heart of its audience by showing the aching yearning for justice in interviews with the survivors of the regime. It also points out the fact that many Spaniards are unaware of the Amnesty Law or of the extent of the horrors perpetrated by the regime. In street interviews, they constantly repeat that “we don’t learn these things in school.” While one sees the temptation to forget a painful, troubled past that involved civil strife and neighbor turning on neighbor, it is shocking to learn that people do not know where their murdered relatives are buried or that torturers are roaming free or even participated in government after the move towards democracy. There are also distressing images of recent rallies hailing images of Franco on the anniversary of his death.

“The Silence of Others,” in its presentation of a frustrating image of a country that has failed its people in the hurry to move on, is a necessary puncturing of the silence surrounding the issue. As far-right parties like Vox gain power in Spain, it is imperative that the Spanish government address and resolve its continued irresponsible policy regarding its past.

Contact Juan Fueyo-Gomez at jfgomez ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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