Terror’s celluloid legacy


Constanza Burucúa’s study of how Argentine film-makers grappled with the ‘Dirty War’ confirms cinema’s importance to democratic culture


Confronting the ‘Dirty War’ in Argentine Cinema, 1983-1993: Memory and Gender in Historical Representations
Constanza Burucúa
2009, Tamesis
231 pages, hardback

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

IF CINEMA is just one medium through which to explore what might loosely be called the culture of democratisation, then the films of Argentina are by far the best place to start.

Not only did the trauma of the “Dirty War” in the late 1970s make the authoritarian experience of that country exceptional, the well established cultural arena in which its democratic transition took place made it a natural point of departure.

Efforts to fashion a new political culture under Raúl Alfonsín after 1983, in which all the potential of the country’s developed intellectual tradition would be employed by the democratising state, explicitly turned attention to the recent past and its many horrors.

Constanza Burucúa’s remarkable study of how Argentine cinema in this period grappled with the theme of state terror and reassessed the prejudices of the most bloody of a series of military regimes provides an eloquent and theoretically grounded insight into this period. In particular, it opens a window on the lesser known cultural effort – alongside the more familiar political strategy – made by the Alfonsín administration to change the country’s trajectory.

In this way, Confronting the ‘Dirty War’ in Argentine Cinema, 1983-1993 is also important for placing firmly on the map the role of cultural discourse in the equation of democratisation, one so often ignored by social scientists interested in political culture, who tend to confine their observations to measurable, attitudinal dimensions of this phenomenon. Ironically, given the role democracy plays in the culture of modernity of the western world – and the troubles newly democratic systems are having consolidating its social gains – the study of such cultural discourses is sorely neglected.

Burucúa examines how the Argentine state, through the country’s film industry, employed cinema as part of a broader discursive strategy that aimed to reshape a dented national identity in an effort to carve out a new future from the bloody rubble of the past. She writes:

“In general terms, the new democracy needed to articulate an inclusive identity that would oppose and counteract the military’s discourse, which was ‘founded on radical differentiation – between good and evil and between national (Argentinian/non-Argentinian) and gender (Male/female) identity’… In order to achieve this, and considering the post-1983 necessity to reunify the nation, national identity and the way it was perceived by the citizens of Argentina had to be reassessed. As the films I have studied reveal, the film medium became a key site in which such a reassessment and re-shaping of identity could be performed.” [p. 195]

Alfonsín’s strategy

Alfonsín’s strategy began with an end to censorship and proceeded with state financial assistance to film-makers in a conscious attempt to communicate on the screen to domestic and international viewers an understanding of the undemocratic past that gave a democratic direction to the future.

The author employs as case studies key films of the period for what they can reveal about how state terror and the abuse of human rights under the military. She conducts her task from within a position informed by cinematic theory, not least the somewhat Argentine notion of a “Third Cinema” with politico-revolutionary objectives that existed alongside the mainstream First and avant garde Second cinemas.

Burucúa examines political and paramilitary thrillers of the transition period such as En retirada (In retreat, Juan Carlos Desanzo), Los dueños del silencio (The Owners of Silence, Carlos Lemos), Revancha de un amigo (A Friend’s Revenge, Santiago Carlos Oves) and Gracias por los servicios (Thanks for the Services, Roberto Maiocco) with the aim of demonstrating how they display explicit representations of acts of state terrorism.
En retirada, for example, tells the menacing story of Oso, a paramilitary in retreat, whose violent and threatening behaviour is played out in an anonymous urban environment and invokes a strong sense of paranoia in the spectator.

The author also explores the Dirty War in women’s cinema, understood more broadly as cinema for women, and analyses in particular Luis Puenzo’s classic Oscar-winning La historia oficial (The Official Story), La amiga (The Girlfriend, Jeanine Meerapfel) and Un muro de silencio (Black Flowers, Lita Stantic). She makes some key observations about the role of women in the democratisation period, and the fact that the persistent opposition to the military by the unlikely Madres de Plaza de Mayo, for example, opened the path to a questioning of traditional, patriarchal gender roles. La historia oficial is considered the best representative of Alfonsín’s cultural policies of reapertura democrática but it was Meerapfel’s La amiga that was the first feature film to focus on the Madres and to criticise the amnesty laws of 1986-87.

Lastly, Burucúa explores more metaphorical films and historical allegory by looking at Darse cuenta (Becoming Aware, Alejandro Doria, photographed above), Sur (The South, Fernando Solanas) and El acto en cuestión (The Act in Question, Alejandro Agresti). Agresti’s film, for example, is structured around the comparison between film and magic: it is through magic that the film alludes to the “in between condition” that, the author argues, partly describes in spatial terms the impossible situation of the desaparecidos.

Confronting the ‘Dirty War’ in Argentine Cinema is hard to put down, quite an achievement for a detailed research monograph, and makes a valuable contribution to the academic study of discourses on identity and history that are so often passed over. Moreover, Burucúa’s observations make a nuanced and original contribution to a broader understanding of democratisation that establishes culture as unambiguously important. Political scientists, take note.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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