Argentina's Dirty War: 'The Official Story'

‘The Official Story’ is a masterfully crafted film that presents an alternative perspective to the Argentine military junta’s ‘Dirty War’ that began in the 1970s and left 30,000 people ‘disappeared’. Those people are los desaparecidos, taken from their homes by the military government and their death squads because they were viewed as subversives or terrorists. While there were small terrorist groups such as Montoneros, the vast majority of victims were simply students, workers or other relatively harmless citizens who disagreed with the regime. Unlike other films, such as ‘Imagining Argentina’, this film’s main focus is not the victim of state-sponsored terror, nor is it the oppressor. Instead we follow the heart wrenching story of Alicia, a member of the privileged bourgeoisie in Buenos Aires, who learns that her adopted daughter is the offspring of los desaparecidos. Alicia is symbolic of one element of society that is often overlooked when examining the effects of terrorism on a nation. The dead and missing did not die at her hands but Alicia represents the moral dilemma of those who chose to believe the ‘official story’ fed to them by their government and who are now compelled to question their complicity in allowing the situation to occur.

In the context of a high school History class, Alicia is challenged by her inquisitive students to reexamine her traditional approach to History and authority. One of her more radical students tells her “History is written by assassins.” While she is hesitant at first to listen to her students, the film follows Alicia as she undergoes a political awakening. It is difficult to believe that someone could live in Argentina during this time and not be aware of the violence and corruption happening around them. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear to Alicia that her own husband, Roberto is somehow linked to the government through his business dealings and has benefited from the military junta. It appears also she inadvertently benefited from her husbands connections, when he brings home baby Gabi for them to adopt. As the military regime unravels and there is protesting in the streets, she is forced to choose whether to remain ignorant or discover the truth about her daughter and the injustice that delivered young Gabi to her.

Alicia’s ethical turmoil surfaces alongside the political turmoil of Argentina with the protestors in the street and the fading power of the military junta. The film’s universal message is that state-sponsored terror permeates society at all levels, from the children and protestors to the wealthy families linked to the government, placing them in the moral position of challenging their own government. Unlike terrorist organizations, such as Peruvian Sendero Luminoso, terror perpetrated by the state carries an air of authority and thus can be more efficiently imposed. Kidnapping, torture, beatings and murder left thousands of Argentines devastated. However, director Puenzo delves further into the situation by exposing a moral dilemma facing those, like Alicia, who were not directly exposed to the violence or guilty of terror themselves. The dilemma of whether or not we have a duty to seek the truth and right previous wrongs even if we are not the one directly responsible for the wrongs.

This dilemma has resurfaced in American society since the administration of Bush and Cheney began it’s ‘war on terror’. Just this month, Binyam Mohamed, a Guantanamo Bay detainee, was returned to Britain and is claiming he was tortured by the US Government in collusion with British intelligence services. There were those in the administration who argued that domestic and international laws prohibiting torture, illegal detention, extraordinary rendition, domestic spying and the suspension of habeas corpus were permissible if a country is at war. In effect, they suspended the Geneva Convention dealing with the treatment of prisoners of war, and although Bush and Cheney would likely disagree, effectively meant carrying out human rights abuses comparable to those that occurred in the Dirty War in Argentina. However, the target in the latest war is not leftists but rather Islamic extremists who are labeled as terrorists fighting to bring harm to the US. While there are differences between the two wars, the main similarity is that both governments felt it was justifiable to defy international law in pursuit of their specific goals; even if it meant sacrificing people’s dignity and justice along the way.

The question now is whether or not the Bush administration will be held accountable for it’s actions. In Argentina it was recognized that the military was responsible for the illegal kidnapping, torture, murder and disappearances of thousands of innocent people. However, immediately following the fall of the junta, amnesty laws were established by the democratically elected government to protect those below the rank of colonel who were simply carrying out orders. These laws were not overturned until 2005 and so it has taken more than 20 years for families left without their loved ones to seek proper justice for crimes committed by their government during the Dirty War. It is interesting to see the reaction of the new Obama administration and American society now that Bush and Cheney are out of the White House. Obama has stated emphatically that he believes we need to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards” and Americans in general appear to agree with him, illustrated by the lack of protest and commentary on the issue. Perhaps past cases of torture and abuse of human rights will go unpunished as they did in Argentina.

Despite the age of ‘The Official Story’ and the situation that occurred in Argentina, these contemporary issues we are now facing make it more relevant than ever. There were 30,000 los desaparecidos and thousands more affected by the Dirty War, a number far higher than is suspected as tortured under the Bush administration. However, torture is still torture and remains highly deplorable when condoned by any government. Puenzo has chosen one tragic period in history and used it to illustrate the danger of an authoritarian government. Alicia’s character forces us to question the rhetoric and propaganda of our leaders and hold them accountable for actions taken. The government is supposed to represent the people and therefore they have a duty to carry out the will of the people rather than to suppress it.