Seeking to find Argentina’s disappeared children in film and book

Marjorie Agosin's book and The Official Story each tackle the Dirty War era in Argentina in which tens of thousands of people died.

How much do we allow ourselves to know?  What does it take to bring the truth out into public view?  What is the legacy of a period of random yet pervasive violence?

These are some of the key questions animating the film The Official Story and The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, a book by dear friend and prolific author, poet and human rights activist Marjorie Agosin.

Each treats the period of the Dirty War in Argentina in which tens of thousands of citizens were “disappeared,” grabbed off the street, never to be seen again and often murdered after having been tortured, raped and beaten.

The Official Story tells the gradual dawning of awareness of Alicia, an infertile high school history teacher married to Roberto, a successful businessman with close ties to one of the nation’s top generals.

The couple adopted Gaby, a five-year-old baby, shortly after her birth.   At the movie’s onset, the self-described “old-fashioned” and politically conservative Alicia is in a cloistered world of teaching Argentinian history to her male students, going to high-end dinner parties with the general and other of Roberto’s associates and caring for her beloved daughter.

Her equilibrium first gets dramatically thrown off by hearing a lurid account of physical abuse and rape from Anna, a high school friend who went into exile and has returned to the country after seven years.  Learning about her friend’s ordeal and realizing that Gaby may have been the daughter of a disappeared woman shocks Alicia, and starts to move her out of her willfully blind attitude.

Her students’ connections between freedom fighters of the Argentinian past, a radical literature teaching colleague and witnessing the demonstrations in which the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo met weekly to call for their loved ones’ returns puts Alicia in further conflict with her conscience.   Starting to ask questions of Roberto extends the struggle to her marriage, which was predicated on an explicit agreement not ever to discuss Gaby’s origins.

Released in 1985, The Official Story is told largely from Alicia’s perspective and, as such, chronicles the erosion of her faith in the system, her marriage and her understanding of the country in which she has lived.

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, on the other hand, looks at the issue from the side of the victim.  Although there are a number of characters, the protagonist is Renee Epelbaum, a mother who had three children disappeared and murdered during the generals’ reign.  Agosin has Epelbaum and her maid, who had helped raise the children, talk about their anguish-a pain that is increased by the lack of closure afforded the victims’ families since there is no certainty that the person is in fact dead.

This is just one of the many cruelties the book illuminates.

Among the others: the few images that Epelbaum has left.  Agosin shows memorably how the forcible seizure of people means that families have no time to prepare, and thus have precious few pictures and shards of memory with which to recall their loved ones.

In addition to writing briefly about the release of the film, these scraps of the remembered past are a key point of intersection between the film and the book. One of the movie’s most painful moments comes when a grandmother who may be Gaby’s talks about the story of the girl’s parents meeting, falling in love and conceiving the child.  At one point she explains to Alicia that this is all that remains of them for her.

Epelbaum was in in similar straits to the haunted grandmother, yet Marjorie shows how she found it within herself to help found the group to which the fictional grandmother belonged.

Their fierce and unwavering love for their children-a love that led them to betray their oppressive government-propelled these courageous women to channel their pain into sustained action.

Although they did not wholly succeed, the women’s tenacity and grit did have an impact, not the least of which was on Alicia, who by the film’s end is bruised and spiritually wounded, yet is in possession of the truth.

The Official Truth and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo each highlight the pivotal role that women have played in bringing the truth to light, puncturing the walls of shame, repression and denial, and forcing those living in conscious “innocence” to confront, if not resolve the consequences of, the horror within.


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