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Sep 22 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Worth Watching: Argentina’s Disappeared

The new documentary, Our Disappeared/Nuestros Desaparecidos, examines the disappearance of 30,000 people during Argentina’s military dictatorship of 1976-1983. Though Argentina’s history differs from ours, we can still take away a valuable lesson: those who participated in state-sponsored torture must be held accountable.

This moving film was written and directed by Juan Mandelbaum. Mandelbaum fled Argentina in 1977 to escape the growing repression in his country. He returns thirty years later after an accidental discovery. Through a Google search, Mandelbaum learned that Patricia Dixon, a college girlfriend, was one of the “disappeared.”

Patricia Dixon

Patricia Dixon

Mandelbaum returns to Argentina to see what happened to Dixon and to others who had also disappeared. He weaves the national narrative—Peron’s return to power and the military junta’s deliberate attempt to destroy the left—with personal ones. We hear from the mothers, fathers, siblings, and even the children of the disappeared. The pain in people’s faces when talking about their missing loved ones is heartbreaking.

The director doesn’t shy away from the violence perpetrated by leftist armed radicals. “But the film leaves no doubt that there was no equivalency between the actions of the left and the repression by the military,” Mandelbaum writes in his director’s statement. “The military represented the State of Argentina, and were obligated to follow the law.”

Instead, people were kidnapped, tortured, and held in secret detention centers. Mandelbaum visits the infamous Navy Mechanics School, which housed a detention center and five torture rooms. It was here that pregnant women were kept alive until the birth of their children, who were then adopted by military and police families. It was here that Mandelbaum’s ex-girlfriend was probably taken.

In an interview on the PBS website, Mandelbaum recounts the this experience:

“Filming at the Navy Mechanics School, where up to 5,000 people were detained, tortured and later thrown alive into the river from airplanes, and where Patricia was almost surely taken, was really tough. There was a moment when I was on the central staircase. I was climbing the stairs and realized that the detainees like Patricia, shackled and blindfolded, would have held the same rail. A small thing like that hit me really hard.”

Mandelbaum incorporates homemade movies, black and white photos, and archival footage into his film. There’s damning footage of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1977 endorsing the military’s president, saying that he hoped they got their terrorist problem under control as soon as possible.

Blanket amnesty laws for those who tortured were passed in the 1980s. In 2005, the Argentine Supreme Court revoked the amnesty laws.

At a time when President Obama keeps repeating that he wants “to look forward and not backward” regarding human rights abuses committed during interrogations, Mandelbaum’s film offers a different take.

“Without opening up the past and facing the truth, there can be no healing,” says Juan Mandelbaum. “Terror will have won.”

Our Disappeared airs this week on PBS.

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