by Laurie Coyle*
This is the fifth in a series of dispatches by filmmaker Laurie Coyle and Chicana activist and former political prisoner Olga Talamante documenting their current trip to Argentina. Click on the “Previous” button at the top of the page to read the previous dispatches and learn more about Laurie and Olga’s travels.
December 5, 2013
The moment has finally arrived, the motive for our Argentina adventure: the premiere of Observando al Observador (Watching the Watchman). Olga and I hop into a cab, then jump out and walk the last block to the Cine Gaumont, where a crowd gathers on the sidewalk and strings of brightly colored pennants lend a festive air.
Located on the Plaza Congreso right across from Argentina’s national congress, the Gaumont is a historic theater founded in 1912. Today it’s the cinematheque for INCAA, the Instituto Nacional de Cine y Artes Audiovisuales. The current building was designed in the modernist style of structural functionalism, with clean lines and a wide lobby.
Upstairs in the mezzanine there’s a reception in progress. Tall, striking, and dressed in black with a huge bouquet of red roses, the director Malena Juanatey greets Olga with a passionate hug. The members of the film crew, their families, and friends are celebrating. Olga has her own contingent in attendance, including our friends from Azul and friends of friends from the States. Fellow political prisoner Julia has traveled hundreds of miles to be here. Earlier today, we met in a café where she and Olga caught up after more than 30 years. In jeans and Birkenstock sandals, Julia could be straight out of Berkeley. She spent eight years in prison, married another political prisoner, and raised five children.
I am amazed to be introduced to Miguel Martínez Naón, a young media activist. The last time I saw Miguel, he was a baby in diapers. His parents, Coco Martínez and Noemi Naón, were theater artists who had come to the Bay Area as refugees and became involved in the Olga Talamante Defense Committee. Now Miguel is all grown up, teaching filmmaking to disadvantaged youth and organizing traveling film programs for INCAA.
It’s the usual indie film opening, with excitement in the air, the buzz of anticipation. What is different this time is feeling “nerves” for the person in front of, not behind, the camera. Olga and I got a “sneak peak” of the film late last night. That’s when we discovered that Olga was the principal protagonist of the film. We are curious, not to say anxious, to see how an audience that doesn’t know Olga will respond.
Observando al Observador tells the story of two US citizens detained and tortured during Argentina’s 1970s-80s “Dirty War,” and explores the role played by the United States in supporting the military dictatorship. It’s an ambitious film for a first-time director, featuring a complex interweaving of three strands: the personal stories of Olga and Patricia Elb; a more academic analysis of US intervention in Latin America and the social conditions that gave rise to the repression; and finally, a self-reflexive essay narrated by the director, a young woman who grew up in the aftermath of the dictatorship, when Argentina was returning to democracy.
After the screening, strangers come up to Olga and hug her. There’s a certain intimacy, as if they feel they know her now that she has shared herself so openly on camera … an affective bond. A young woman and her father pose to have their picture taken with her. The following day, the reviewer for La Nación, Argentina’s largest conservative newspaper, writes, “se sigue con el interés creciente … a unas historias particulares, con buenas protagonistas, especialmente Olga Talamante Castillo, con singular carisma” (“We follow with growing interest the personal stories of good protagonists, especially Olga Talamante Castillo, with her singular charisma.”) Well, reader, most of us knew this already, but it’s nice to read it in the newspaper!
In the days after the premiere, we discuss the film at length. There is curiosity (and a little disappointment maybe?) on the part of those who came hoping or dreading to see themselves included in the film. I feel compelled to explain the mysteries of documentary filmmaking: Why interview 15 people if only five will make it into the final film? Why representative protagonists, not a cast of thousands? Why this voice or that focus? In these conversations I emphasize the tough choices filmmakers face, hoping to convey that we do take great pains to honor the trust our subjects place in us.
With the director and crew, we talk a lot about the “target audience”–Argentina’s youth, who didn’t live through the Dirty War. Some come from families directly affected by the disappearance of loved ones; for some, it’s a taboo subject never discussed; in others, they wrestle openly with the burden of relatives’ psychological scars. But the majority of young Argentinians don’t know any more about this recent history than young Americans know about the Vietnam War. The intergenerational aspect of Observando al Observador is its greatest strength–young filmmakers grappling with the legacy of the military dictatorship, paying tribute to the “elders” who were their age when the shit hit the fan. Their goal is to build bridges that can heal and forge a consciousness around “never again.”
The past and the present collide for me on the evening of the premiere. There are my old comrades, with whom I shared the experience of organizing in the poor barrios of Azul, the meetings, the marches, and our youthful idealism. And there are the young people, sons and daughters of that period of history, some who were born in exile, some with relatives among the disappeared. A celebratory moment: for Malena, the director, completing this six-year project; for her young cohorts, to see the fruits of their labor; for me and my compañeros, the vindication that our stories can be part of healing of the past and contribute to the present conversation on how to ensure that the horrors of the military dictatorship will not be repeated.
The culmination of this project, the actual projection of the film on the big screen, could be deemed long in its 77 minutes, by documentary standards. But it is 77 minutes of a few lifetimes, of long days of longing, of decades of political markers, of encuentros y re-encuentros over thousands of miles. It is 6,512 miles to be exact, the distance between San Francisco and Azul.
The credit for this film goes entirely to Malena Juanatey, for her vision about the need for this film and her tenacity to bring it to completion. I believe she would have made it against whatever odds that confronted her, and there were many in the course of the six years that she worked on it.
But my participation in the film I owe entirely to my friend Ruben Piazza, my compañero, fellow cadre and political prisoner. He made it possible for Ed McCaughan and me to travel to Argentina to be filmed in March 2012 by providing transportation and lodging; traveling four hours each way to pick us up at the airport; putting us up at his and his wife Tuki’s home; allowing his house to be used for the initial interviews; providing crucial archival news clippings and photographs used in the film; showing the film crew the sites where we were arrested, the police station where were held, and the prison where I spent 16 months. (He went on to spend eight years under the most inhumane conditions.)
Most of all, Ruben encouraged me to come back and opened his heart to make sure that I felt welcome, safe, and able to process the enormity of my return–like the bells rung at the old Franciscan monastery in San Juan Capistrano, California, upon the arrival of the swallows from Argentina, letting them know they are safe and can rest from their 7,000-mile journey.
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