Filmed over six years, The Silence of Others reveals the epic struggle of victims of Spain’s 40-year dictatorship under General Franco, as they organize a groundbreaking international lawsuit and fight a “pact of forgetting” around the crimes they suffered. A cautionary tale about fascism and the dangers of forgetting the past. Directors Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar sat down with GOOD DOCS to discuss their process and outline why the film is important for global audiences. Interview conducted in English and Spanish by Samuel Rubin.
When you started your research process, prior to starting to film, were you able to acknowledge any bias or misconceptions? Did any of these change during your research?
Robert: I think what was really interesting in the research of the film was realizing that Almudena was coming from the point of view of a Spaniard who had grown up during the transition from dictatorship to democracy and knew about all of this and had a certain point of view about it. I'm an American, and I was coming at this having learned about the Spanish Civil War but not knowing much more.
The project started out with this feeling that injustice exists. Impunity exists. A film can help tell the story. And as we got deeper and deeper into it we started to see where this fits into this bigger picture.
We started to realize that this was not just a Spanish story. Spain has been hailed as this peaceful model of transition but actually it has these ghosts within it that need to be studied and recognized. As we started to look at the bigger picture we asked ‘How does this compare to what happened in South Africa? How does this compare to what they're trying to do in Colombia?,' then we started having a bigger vision for the film.
In regards to the film, what did you think about the topic that hadn’t been dealt with before in Spain but also abroad?
Robert: There are books, films, poetry and songs that talk about the Spanish Civil War and its legacy; talk about the mass graves in Spain. But what we wanted to do that we thought was different was to make this all about the present.
This is a film about crimes that took place during a 40-year dictatorship. It's about the fight to get loved ones’ bodies out of mass graves. It's about the stealing of children that took place throughout the dictatorship. It's about the torture that took place in the late 60s and the 70s. But it's also all about today: 40 years into a democracy, why does this impunity still exist?
It's also about an opportunity that still exists to address these crimes before it's too late. I think it's about transitional justice in this bigger way where you see there's always a desire on the part of the powerful to forget, to move on. Their economic interests support that, their political interests support that.
Almudena: Para nosotros era muy importante este aspecto de contarlo en presente porque sentíamos que era una manera importante para...contrarrestar esta narrativa aprendida: ‘hay que olvidar, es la guerra de los abuelos, hace mucho tiempo…’ Entonces, la manera de contrarrestarlo es decir ‘no, no es pasado, es presente.' Es una lucha presente, un sufrimiento presente de nuestras vecinas y vecinos, hoy. El traerlo al presente creo que ayuda a cambiar el planteamiento alrededor del tema.
Pero la segunda cosa que es importante en relación a otros trabajos es que es una película que ahonda en muchos crímenes…Al juntarlos todos ‘es como un panóptico’ (como nos decía ayer un periodista)...crea un mosaico, junta las piezas de un puzzle para mostrar lo que es el paisaje de la impunidad…‘the landscape of impunity’... y esto ayuda a entender el presente…De repente lo juntas todo y dices ‘esta es la España de hoy’. Y eso le impacta a mucha gente.
Almudena: What happens with issues related to transitional justice is that you often have the Global North judging a nation in the Global South. Estamos muy acostumbrados a relatos donde todo ocurre “abajo,” pero no a relatos que trascurren aquí en el corazón de Europa occidental. Entonces, el reflejar esta realidad de un país del norte global, ayuda a muchos otros países a darse cuenta que no están solos en su lucha contra su pasado. How do we address state violence? In that case, Spain is a very interesting case study on how not to do it.
Paqui (una de las protagonistas en la película) siempre comenta: “La transición tuvo sus luces pero también tuvo sus sombras. Y esta película es sobre las sombras.” Entendemos que sobre las luces ya hay mucho hecho.
Were you interested in the other point of view?
Almudena: The other point of view is what’s around us. The other point of view is what we’ve learned…the narrative we always repeat. This film was the other point of view. The one that we don’t learn about, that we didn’t learn in school, that we don’t talk about...The one of the invisible victims and survivors.
Yo creo que la película no intenta juzgar la transición. Sino poner un espejo muy claro al espectador, y decir (...) ‘hoy cuál es la justificación?’ En el 2019 hay 114,000 desaparecidos (realmente el número ni siquiera se sabe, porque el Estado Español a día de hoy no ha hecho un recuento oficial, a 40 años de democracia no hay un cómputo oficial, por lo tanto la cifra de 114,000 es una cifra de las asociaciones), miles de niños robados, torturadores que andan por la calle…eso es una realidad en la España del 2019...y eso es la gran pregunta en la película, ¿cómo es posible que hoy, en el día de hoy, eso ocurra…? Y es un espejo al espectador: cuando el espejo está en España se entienden unas cosas, pero cuando el espejo está en Estados Unidos es un reflejo totalmente diferente. Y entonces enseguida hacen suya la problemática y lo relacionan con los problemas que están pasando en Estados Unidos y de nuevo el legado de este pasado traumático…
Viendo la película está muy claro que el foco está sobre las experiencias y las víctimas, el trauma… ya no es quien ha hecho esto y quien ha hecho aquello. En todas las familias de España tenemos gente que piensa por ambos lados; y por eso creo que hay mucha gente que puede ver esta película juntos sin tener ninguna discusión política...
Almudena: That was the other thing: this is not about political parties, it’s about human rights issues...Los expertos de la transición no hablan. No es una película de expertos; es una película de las víctimas. Y entonces de repente ya no es una cuestión política; es una cuestión de derechos humanos y de que la gente tiene derecho a enterrar a los suyos. Que la gente tiene derecho de juzgar a la gente que la tortura, igual que si alguien viola a tu hermana, esta persona tiene que ir a juicio. O sea, esa concepción del derecho a la justicia yo creo que cambia mucho la mentalidad. Y mucha gente en España que ha venido a verla que no está de acuerdo -y viene a verla porque ha tenido mucho éxito- y nos dice, “Me ha cambiado, es que podría haber sido yo”. Y este “podría haber sido yo”, es una cosa bastante poderosa cuando le ocurre al espectador. Para romper la barrera entre tú y “el otro”.
Did you have to undergo any type of training for PTSD? There’s a lot of high-emotionally charged sequences (i.e. mass graves)... what was the process and how it was to film these?
Robert: I think that working with anyone who has been traumatized requires a lot of respect, care, caution, and empathy. One of the ways that our process tries to accommodate all of these things is that we work with people for a very long time. Usually, it is only Almudena and me; Almudena is the cinematographer and I do the sound. If we talk to them for one day, two days, weeks, months, then three years later we are still spending time with them…We’re building up a kind of trust where people can feel comfortable in recounting their stories.
We are also working with people who have already made a decision to tell their stories; I want to tell it to the judge, I want to share it at this event, and I want to tell it in this film. People have made their choice and decided to break their silence as part of their pursuit for justice. So that is part of what enables us to go on our journey with them.
Almudena: And there’s a relationship of mutual respect. They’re working with us and they trust us to tell their story. They know they can stop anytime. They know they can say afterward ‘I don’t want you to include that’ if they’re sensitive about it. In some cases, we stopped, cried with them, hugged them and then asked if they would like to continue. It’s basically them leading the process in a way, we are accompanying them. It’s their decision.
I’m 24 years old. I think a lot about all the trauma, pain that my generation hasn’t processed. There’s this quote from the film “no podemos enseñar a nuestros hijos porque no lo sabemos.” What can someone my age, who isn’t from Spain, take from this? And also, have you found a way to explain to younger generations the topic of the film?
Almudena: Esta cita es poderosa y realmente es uno de los orígenes de la película...El corazón de la película fue un proceso mio interno. Yo sabía que mis padres militaron y tenía suficiente inquietud como para empezar a cuestionarme por qué no sabía más. Es decir, sabía algo… pero no sabía nada en realidad. Cuando empiezo a ver estas películas sobre memoria, empiezo a sentir una deuda. (Por ejemplo recuerdo el impacto que me produjo ‘El Laberinto del Fauno’). Uno de los libros que leí fue ‘La Voz Dormida’: tardé tres años en leerme el libro, esto es verdad, porque me producía mucho dolor. Y cuando terminé de leerlo leí una entrevista de su autora, Dulce Chacón, en la que decía, “Nuestros padres estaban muy cerca de la época como para explicarnos. Nosotros no conocemos nada, no podemos contarlo a nuestro hijos. Somos la generación del silencio de los otros.” Entonces le dije a Robert, ‘El Silencio de los Otros’ es el título de esta película que un día existirá.
Robert: One of the biggest themes in the movie is about ‘how do you recover from any kind of conflict? How do you recover from a war? From a civil war, from a military conflict, from oppression?’ All of these elements come together in the film, so the film has these bigger dimensions.
One is transitional justice, which is basically how you deal with the aftermath of a conflict. ‘How do you rebuild peace or democracy after a dictatorship or a violent conflict or state perpetrated violence?’
Then, there’s this idea of ‘international justice,’ which is a basic human rights idea, that some crimes are so grave that all countries around the world have a responsibility to make sure that they are investigated…those two aspects relate to dozens of countries right now that are going through these processes.
There’s a very particular reflection that comes out which is a scene in the film where we see streets that are named after some of Franco’s generals. There’s a debate today whether these streets should be renamed...This feels just like the debate taking place in the United States about monuments of Confederate Generals and how people talk about the US Civil War. When we screened this in LA, some people said, “for the first time I understand the difference between saying ‘sure, history needs to be written down; it needs to be remembered so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past’ but there’s a difference between ‘recording’ history and choosing to ‘celebrate’ certain aspects. And that’s what these monuments do.”...There are all these different kinds of parallels that people draw from the film.
I think it’s a moment internationally where we can see the far-right has gained power and activists who want to struggle for human rights are going to have to be on their toes and be there to try to help. I think this story connects many of these themes. There was a moment in which we thought that this was a film about how to deal with crimes that had taken place in the past. Now, we shudder to think that this may be a film about crimes that are about to take place, that states are about to commit.
All these autocratic governments have in common their love for a ‘glorious past’ and that is very connected to forgetting & forgiving. Have your conceptions of these terms changed after making The Silence of Others?
Robert: I think you are totally right that whether it is new fascism or alt-right demagoguery, what you see in their rhetoric is this nostalgia and sort of fixation on this great past and often it becomes about ‘let us reclaim the great past.’ In the film, some people are holding up signs that say ‘Make Spain Great Again’ – I think the reference is very clear.
This kind of nostalgia is a way that history gets manipulated and can be used to foment prejudice – like in the case of the United States – against immigrants, or foment prejudice against activists who are saying ‘things could be better, we need social change.’
Almudena: It is selective memory. In this context of ‘what a great country we were, let’s go back to those times’ and ‘immigrants are a threat to our society’ they forget that the U.S. is a nation made of immigrants, that Native Americans were slaughtered and that African Americans were enslaved…History has been re-written. It’s very important to keep in mind the dichotomy between memory and forgetting – we forget what we choose to forget and then we choose to remember that hypothetical great past.
The difference between forgetting and forgiving was one idea very important for us to discuss in the film…Forgetting is very often a concept imposed on the victims, as if they have a responsibility to forgive. The film clearly says that forgiving is an individual decision. And, from the point of view of the state, the government cannot forgive, their role is to prosecute. Forgiving is actually an individual moral concept.
Robert: I just went to a screening in London and the commentator said “wasn’t there a decision to trade off justice for peace?” To which I responded “Does Chato have peace if Billy the Kid, his torturer, lives a couple blocks away? Does María Martín have peace if she’s writing letters to the mayor, the government, the king, and nobody responds to her to help her get her mother’s body from mass grave under a highway? Do mothers whose babies were stolen have peace?”
If you could have a magic stick, what would you want people to discuss after watching the film? What is the common denominator of that discussion?
Almudena: As a very basic reaction, we’d love people to feel what it feels to live in these people’s skin, to understand and feel their journey towards justice. That type of experiential connection –which we have seen occur in screenings everywhere in the world – actually breaks a lot of preconceptions and allows audiences to connect issues in the film with their personal experiences in the search for dignity or justice in any given situation.
On another level, we would love the audience to connect the issues in the film with their own communities. Is there a legacy of a traumatic past or state violence? How does it manifest itself? Have those communities been given any type of redress? What is needed to provide such redress as a community? As mentioned before, this is something very powerful that has happened with the film’s international distribution.
Yes, tell us a bit about the impact of the film.
Robert: As artists we see our work not only as the making of the film but as the impact that it has and the process of bringing it out to the world. We spent the last two years thinking deeply and working hard so that we wouldn’t just make a film that was about impunity but that the film would actually reach people in Spain and make a difference.
Almudena: I think what makes the film so powerful is that it was able to reach beyond those who were sympathetic or already engaged with the issue, and reach those who had no idea – which is most people.
Robert: Internationally, The Silence of Others has been released in 18 countries. In Portugal it premiered on the anniversary of the Carnation Revolution; in Brazil it was released in the early days of the Bolsonaro presidency; in Mexico it is touring in all Mexican states in the midst of a “disappeared” crisis; in Argentina it premiered with support from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
Almudena: The film’s impact has been particularly powerful in Spain, where it has been seen by more than a million people and truly sparked national dialogue. After playing cinemas for months, it was the most viewed documentary on Spanish public television in five years. It trended on Twitter as Spain’s #2 topic, and even Spain’s Prime Minister urged everyone to think of the victims and to watch the film. A viral video based on the film was viewed 4.3 million times. RTVE called it “the film that everyone is talking about.” We have spent two years facilitating hundreds of community and school-based screenings, and are collaborating with Amnesty International-Spain to reach more than 1000 schools.
Robert: Also, we just screened the film at United Nations headquarters featuring a panel on transitional justice with the filmmakers, protagonists, and UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-recurrence. It’s been a long journey but we are proud of the film and what’s been able to achieve.
The Silence of Others is the winner of 40+ international awards, including a 2019 Goya – Spain’s Academy Award –, a Peabody Award, the Berlinale Panorama Audience Award, Sheffield Doc/Fest Grand Jury Award, and was shortlisted for the 91st Academy Awards. Executive Produced by Pedro Almodóvar and Produced and Directed by Emmy-winning filmmakers Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar, it has been seen in over 70 countries and has been released in 18+ countries.