Clandestine Childhood/Benjamin Avila

Benjamin Avila’s parents belonged to the Montoneros, guerilla fighters defending Peron’s agenda against the military junta in Argentina.  Far from decrying his violent childhood, Avila remembers it as a precious time, when people believed in their ability to change society.  His film Clandestine Childhood, based in part on his own life story, is a tribute to that period in Argentinean history.  In Avila’s script, twelve-year-old Juan has to hide his identity from his schoolmates in order to protect his family’s activities from discovery.  Under the assumed name of Ernesto, he settles into a happy routine at school and falls in love with a schoolmate.  Only when that love is threatened by his parents’ need to move away does he rebel. •Availability: VOD, Netflix. •Thanks to Andrea Betanzos, Cinema Tropical, for arranging this interview•

 

 

DT:  You and your parents returned to Argentina in 1979, after a long exile in Cuba.  In the film, your grandmother has a fight with your parents, saying they don’t know the Argentina that they’ve come back to.  Do you think that your grandmother was right, that they didn’t understand the situation in Argentina in 1979?

 

BA:  I think my parents thought they were going to find something different.

 

DT:  Different in what way?

 

BA:   They thought that their movement, the guerilla movement, still had good representation among the people. When they arrived in Argentina, they saw that it didn’t.  The support was different from what they expected. The fight in the movie is a historical discussion between parents and children:  Children always fight when their parents say, “Don’t do that,”  but during that period that discussion was common between mothers and sons.  Mothers are always afraid, but at that moment they were more afraid because they never understood what their sons were doing.  They were simple women, who then became the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.  I wanted to show that the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo were very simple and became these brave women later on.

 

DT:  In your director’s statement, you said, “Revisiting history from the point of view of my younger self allowed me to shed a new light on this period.”  In what way?

 

BA:  The cinema in Argentina has shown this period many times.  I think it showed it in a very sensitive way, but it always showed the dark parts—fear, death, persecution, torture.  Those were not the only things that I remember, so for me it was more important to show the other part—the life of that period. History states that if you fight for something, you’re going to die, because that is how the story is written.  Don’t believe so much, because you’re going to be killed.  So I wanted to show that these people never fought to die.  They never fight to die. They fight to live.  They fight because they believe so much.  And their lives were very powerful.  They had a lot of life.  They didn’t have death.

 

DT:  There was a lot of love and laughter and camaraderie.

 

BA: I remember my childhood very well, and it was an amazing period of my life.  It was not a dark period.  The consequence of that was terrible, but not when I was living it. For me that period of time was incredible.  The exile, and when we returned, was incredible because we were together.  We were very strong together.

 

DT:  You grew up surrounded by violence.  Did it scare you?  Did it make you angry?

 

BA:  Yes.  We talk about The Sons, and there is a group called H.I.J.O.S. [The Sons].   We don’t represent our entire generation in Argentina—we are many but we are not all—but I think my generation knows fear very well.  We have it very deep inside because we lived near to death.  We knew how dangerous a thing could be or not.  So yes:  We know what violence is.  We know what fear is because we lived it, it’s part of our lives.  But I separate the period I spent with my parents from what happened later.  It’s my normal life.  It’s not a special life. It’s the only life I have, so it’s my life.

 

DT:  But you saw that it was different from the lives of the kids around you.

 

BA:  Yes, absolutely.  I was seven, not twelve, like Juan in the film.  I had distance from kids my age; when I was playing with another little boy I knew that I had to be like an actor acting like a child because I understood more than he did.  All The Sons had that distance because we understood more of our reality than the other kids did.  But we never said, “Oh, poor child” for them, and we never said, “Oh, poor me, I have to live this kind of life” for ourselves.  For me it was incredible.  But what happened later when we were captured and kidnapped, well…I was very afraid at that time.  It was four days, but it was very hard.  And then they kidnapped my little brother, but luckily for my family we found my brother again five years later.  But still—there is now. In the film I changed my brother into a sister because I wanted people to ask, What happened with the sister?  and the answer would be, We don’t know where she is.  We’re still looking for her.  The grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo are still working to find her.  I didn’t use my personal history so that when people ask, What happened with the sister? I can say, We’re still looking for her.

 

DT:  What was the most painful thing about having to hide who you were when the other kids were just sort of finding themselves?

 

BA:  It was not a problem for me. At all.  What was very difficult for me was to live in a society with injustice.  During the ’80s and‘’90s, the story that we suffered—my mother’s disappearance, looking for my brother for so long, the sadness of everything, of my grandmothers and my uncles and aunts—was a personal consequence.  I always thought, That’s my personal consequence, but the most important thing is the project.  OK, I suffered, but the worst thing for me and for all The Sons in the ’80s and ’90s was that nothing changed in society.  It got worse.  It was terrible for us to live in a society where our personal suffering meant nothing because it was futile to fight. Luckily, in the last ten years, the government has changed and is making judgments of the military.  We are very happy with all of that and the kind of politics and government that is now in Argentina.  We agree with them.

 

DT:  The amnesty has been lifted….

 

BA:  Not only the amnesty.   We agree with the economics, politics, and sociopolitics, and we feel now that it wasn’t futile. Everybody has seen that period of time and that period of the fight, and the young people believe again in politics.  They are very strong—the left and the right.  Teenagers,  20-year-olds, 25-year-olds are so involved now in politics. They all believe that they can change their own reality.  In my generation they thought that politics was futile, that you were wasting your time doing that.  That was the ’90s in the whole world, but in Latin America everything is changed now, and in North America too.  We are living in a very good period.  Very good.

 

DT:  Unless I’m mistaken, one of the Montoneros shouts, “Viva Peron!”

 

BA:  They were Peronists.

 

DT:  But why were they still supporting Peron at that point?

 

BA:  We don’t know. That’s a discussion we always have.  I believe the same as you:  I never know why, because Peron betrayed them.  My parents always said there were two periods of Peronist government and that we believed in the Peron of the first government, not the second one.  Peronism is very difficult to explain.  Two days ago I did an interview for radio, and she told me, “If you were in Cuba, you’re Communists.” And I said, “No, we are Peronists.”  She just kept repeating, “But if you were in Cuba…”  She wanted to simplify something that was more complex and more interesting.  Then a newspaper journalist wrote, “They were anarchist militants.”  Sorry, you don’t know what anarchists are?  You’re a journalist, you at least have to know the difference between anarchism or another political movement.  Come on!  I know maybe here in the United States it’s more difficult to understand that there are communists, Peronists, capitalists…. Here it’s easier to understand communism and capitalism because there was a cold war between these two points, but Peron always said, “We are not communists.  We are not capitalists.  We are the third option.”  That’s what he always said:  “We are the third option. We are a new movement.”  And it was.

 

DT:  So let’s talk about the movie.  What guided you when you were writing the script?  What story did you want to tell?

 

BA:  I always knew that I never wanted to be the main character of the movie, so I changed a lot of things.  It’s based on my own childhood and my brother’s childhood, but it’s not my real childhood.  If I did an autobiographical story the subject would be different, so I changed things, I added things.  I took scenes from other stories, personal stories.  Some things happened to me literally…like the birthday.

 

DT:  The birthday was great.

 

BA:  My parents decided to make a birthday party to open the house to the neighbors so that the neighbors wouldn’t suspect anything.  The fight because of the flag in the school….that happened too, but it was not a fight with a boy, it happened because I didn’t want to raise the flag and I knew that I couldn’t say why, so suddenly I became crazy and began to shout.  My mother had to come to school to get me.  Then we had two characters who never existed:  Maria. The love story never existed; I would like to have in my own personal history that story—

 

DT:  Well, you were a little young if you were only seven.

 

BA:  In Cuba I had my love story when I was six, but we invented Maria because I needed to give Ernesto the same weight as Juan.  Because of the violence in Juan’s world, the outside world had to have the same weight just to push Juan to the side. Uncle Beto never existed either, but he was very similar to my father and how my own brother behaves with my sons today.  So I took this beautiful character.

 

DT:  Such a great character.

 

BA:  Everybody loves Beto.

 

DT:  What were your primary considerations in casting?  Did you look for actors who were like your parents?

 

BA:  The closest personal character is the mother.  At the beginning I began to look for an actress similar to my real mother.  She was blonde, and very beautiful.  Everybody talked about her beauty, her personality, so at the beginning I began to look for someone who was physically similar.  I never found anyone, so I began to look for the other characters.  Uncle Beto [Ernesto Alterio] was the first actor I got. I saw him in a miniseries made in Argentina, and I really liked it.  He lives in Spain, where he’s very famous, but in the Argentine miniseries his character was completely different from the other work that he did in Spain.  Suddenly I saw a complex actor. He happened to be in Argentina shooting a film, so I had another director make contact with him.  We went out to dinner, I gave him the script, he loved it, and said, “I want to do that.”  Natalia Oreiro [the actress who plays the mother] is  very, very famous in Argentina.  She says something and all the newspapers report it.  She was doing TV shows, soap operas, things like that.  Suddenly she stopped doing soap operas, stopped doing TV, and began to only do cinema.  Four years ago she made France with Adrian Caetano, and suddenly I saw her doing something more interesting.  So I thought, maybe she wants to take this character as an opportunity to change her own career.  She read the script and she was completely crazy about the character.  We met, and it was very interesting chemistry between us.  She’s an incredibly hard worker.  I got Cesar Troncoso to play the father like this:  Luis Puenzo, the producer of the movie, worked with him on another film and said, “Look at this Uruguyan actor.”  When I said I didn’t know him, Puenzo said, “Did you see The Pope’s Toilet?   It’s him.”  I said, “That’s impossible.” Cesar changes his physicality very much, so each movie is different.  An incredible actor.  We contacted him, he accepted, it was very nice.  The grandmother [Cristina Banegas] is a great actress in Argentina.  She was the only actor who, while I was writing, I thought, My best option is her.  She just won an International Emmy for Best Actress.  She’s an incredible actress, and she accepted the role of grandmother.  Everybody loves the script.  It opened a lot of doors because the people who read it believed in the movie.

 

DT:  While you were writing the script, did you have any conflicts with yourself over what to reveal and what not to reveal?   Did you ever think, Oh, no, I can’t say that?

 

BA:  No. The opposite: I decided to do the fight with the grandmother.  When I wrote the script with a Brazilian friend, Marcello Muller, that scene was six pages.  It was long.  When we rehearsed with the actors, I knew that scene was the heart of the movie, but I was not good with it.  It didn’t work, so I asked all the actors to improvise it again.  I said to the women, the only thing that I want, I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but in the end, you have to hug each other.  So I shot the improvisation that we did with them.  We did two improvisations with all the actors, with the kid too, with Teo [Gutierrez Romero].  The first one was twenty minutes of improvisation—

 

DT:  You were shooting?

 

BA:  Yes.  I shoot many things.  I wanted the actors to get used to seeing me behind the camera and being near them.  So we did the first one, finished completely exhausted. We talked about it, we took a breath, and then I said, “Let’s do it again.”

 

DT:  Right away?

 

BA:  We had already done a lot of research about that period with the actors because I needed them to believe what they were doing in that moment.  At the beginning the first talk was, Why, why are you doing that?  Why with the kids?  Why, why why?  So we had to pass away this why.  I had to say, “I have to ask you why and you have to answer me.”  So we worked a lot doing that, and they were completely strong with the characters.  And the improv was great.  They said the most politically incorrect things, because what the mother and the grandmother said to each other nobody had ever said in a movie in Argentina.

 

DT:  Like cruel?

 

BA:  Like when the grandmother said, “But you want to be a guerrilla.”  The mother’s answer was incredible:   “What’s the problem?  Why not?  We want to change the world.”  Then the grandmother said, “But you’re going to be killed.” In Argentina, everybody gasped. That’s the interesting thing, because everybody had that discussion in their personal life, but it was the first time that anyone showed this kind of discussion, which was a very closed thing, a very intimate thing. I showed this particular scene to Estela Carlotto, the president of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.  It was very important for me to show them because the grandmother in the film is a grandmother of the Plaza de Mayo; she represents them. I was a little bit afraid of Estela’s reaction.  When she finished seeing the scene, she thought a while and said, “You’re right.  It was like that.  We never understood what they were doing.  We were only afraid.  I had this discussion with my daughter.”  I said, OK, we are in a good way.  I think the movie is very sincere. It’s not just about keeping this political view.  No, no.  It’s complex. It’s not a black-and-white movie.  It’s a gray movie.  It’s put in the middle. It’s more human, because nobody is black and white.  Everybody is more complex than that.  Everybody who wanted to write the big story of the country needed black-and-white because it’s more easy to tell a story like that.  That was bad for us in Argentina because that period suddenly became a fight between two parts only.  It was not that. It was interesting.  It had more reality.  It was more human.  It was not one against the other fighting for an idea.  No, no.  It was something much more human.  So maybe the surprise of the movie was that we showed a human point of view.  We didn’t show a political point of view.  It’s a political movie, obviously.  I have my own political opinion, but the movie opens this idea that the audience has to decide how to build this story.  We never said how.  It’s a movie of asking, it’s not the answers.  What happened with the audience in Argentina is very interesting: the mouth to mouth was incredible, and the different political points of view suddenly had to ask themselves again the same question that they had answered many times.  I wanted to show that it was this day-by-day thing, that to believe in an idea was not a thing that meant you were in a political movement, it was, I walk this way because I believe in that.  In that period the young people who believed strongly changed their lives because of their belief.  It was like a religion.  It was an incredible period that we completely lost.  What really killed that generation was the idea that they could change the world.  In the ‘80s and ‘90s this new democratic life began in the world, where you saw the letter of democracy and then you saw reality, and you said, Democracy is not that.  I think we completely lost the possibility to believe we could change.  If you look back at that period maybe you would say they were naïve, but they were not naïve. They believed. Everybody of that generation who believed was changing the world.  And now, after so much death, so much change, we know we can’t change the world, but we know that we can change a little part of something with the law.  If we enact this law, we are going to change this small reality.  We are not going to change the world.  We know that now.  Maybe it’s a sad thing that the real beliefs are finished.

 

DT:  The only time that Juan disobeys his parents is when he thinks he’s going to have to leave Maria, but his solution—taking enough money so they can run away—is so adult that he just ends up scaring her.

 

BA:  Yes. I love that reaction, because everybody is waiting for her to say, “Oh, yes”—you know, the typical cinematographic moment. Juan knows so much: he knows that he can’t say the truth because it’s very dangerous to say the truth.   Not only for him—for her, too.  He’s never going to tell Maria the truth, but if they go to Brazil, he’s going to tell her the truth.  Juan is saying this because he believes it. He’s going to do it.  That was the most difficult thing to build: what Juan wants to do is real, not something idealistic.

 

DT:  No, he’s going to do it.

 

BA:  When we wrote the scene it was dangerous for us because we didn’t know if the audience was going to believe this.  We thought they might say, “Oh come on, they are not going to go,” but in the movie it was good.  I discussed it a lot with Marcello, my cowriter:  when Juan decides to go he’s not running away from his parents.  He’s doing what he learned all his life:  to do what he believes.  So, you live your life this way? I do the same.  But with my life.

 

DT:  Do you consider yourself a political filmmaker, and do you want to keep making political films?

 

BA:  Absolutely.  I always will do political things.  I love Ken Loach’s cinema, but I love what he did in Great Britian, not outside of Great Britain.  Outside I think he was more naive.  But what he did inside Great Britain—Hidden Agenda, RiffRaff, Raining Stones—I think these movies are incredible because they give a portrait of society from a political and social point of view that helps people rethink a lot about themselves.  It’s very easy for the cinema to give this kind of point of view, and I also love Kieslowski’s cinema. Kieslowski has this political point of view, but poetical too, so I identify myself with them.  So, yeah.  I’m always going to do political cinema.

 

 

 

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