The Silence of Others/Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar

While precise numbers vary, close to a million people are said to have been executed under the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Another half a million fled the country. Two years after Franco died in 1975 after 40 years in power,  the Spanish parliament enacted the Amnesty Law. The law did two things: it freed any remaining anti-Franco political prisoners but also prevented prosecution of any of Franco’s officials. All that changed in 2014. Invoking universal jurisdiction, a doctrine that allows judges to try human rights abuses committed in other countries, Argentinean judge Maria Servini de Cubria issued extradition warrants for 20 former officials in the Franco regime. In The Silence of Others, codirectors Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar follow Judge Servini’s efforts to prosecute former officials in the Franco regime. The directors also document the determination of the victims-turned-plaintiffs, who suffered not only the horrors inflicted by Franco but the terrible code of silence that the Amnesty Law imposed on them, their children, and their country. •Availability: The Silence of Others opens in New York City May 8, at Film Form. Click here for the trailer and theater listings near you. Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview.


DT: Talk about the Amnesty Law and how it enforced a code of silence on the people of Spain.

AC: Franco died in power in 1975 after a forty-year dictatorship. There was a transition by transaction, which means the regime negotiated itself out of power. One of the conditions was the Amnesty Law. Basically it was a demand from the left. There were tons of political protests on the street demanding the release of political prisoners. When the Amnesty Law came out in 1977, it had two articles. One freed the remaining prisoners. The second—in one sentence—exonerated all the people who had committed political crimes during the dictatorship. That means there was no possibility for  not just prosecution but even investigation.

In Argentina there was an amnesty law, people were judged and condemned, but the sentence could not be applied. In Spain people are not even  investigated because of the Amnesty Law. To this day. Fast-forward to 2008, and Judge Baltasar Garzon initially tried to investigate. He was disbarred for an unrelated cause, but everyone believed it to be political punishment. At that point the prosecution of victims in Spain completely stopped. The door closed. That’s when victims and survivors went to Argentina.

Going back to the Amnesty Law,  it was not just a law. It was also a societal pact. It was a pact among the political parties that everything had to be left behind. That meant we children were not going to learn about it in school. It was not to be talked about in the street. Our families were not going to talk about it among themselves. For many years it was considered politically impolite to even discuss what had happened. Victims couldn’t even say what had happened to them because they were considered to be rocking the boat. So that transition, which obviously had many positive things—I’m here, I could make a film as a Spaniard and nothing happened to me—also had its shadows. It was done at the expense of hundreds of thousands of victims, and the pact of forgetting has continued to the present.

Maria Martin, whose mother was murdered during Franco's regime. Maria's daughter is a plaintiff in the case brought by Judge Servini.

Maria Martin, whose mother was murdered during Franco’s regime. Maria places flowers by the roadside to commemorate the mass grave where her mother is buried. Maria’s daughter is a plaintiff in the case brought by Judge Servini. Photo courtesy of Argot Pictures.


DT: In the film, you show a woman who had been so brutally beaten during the dictatorship that she was unable to keep her hands from shaking while she was testifying in Argentina. Yet later in the film even she says that she wanted to forget and that she too enforced this code of silence.

RB: The overall idea of forgetting everything is that we’re going to exchange justice for peace, so the only way we can move forward is not to pursue justice—just put all of this behind us. Some people say this is a film about the Spanish Civil War and its legacy. No. It’s really not. It’s a film about the legacy of this decision to forget. It’s partly about the crimes of the dictatorship, but in a way it’s about the crime of forgetting for forty years in a democracy.

Maybe the idea was to exchange justice for peace, but forty years later, was peace created if you have 114,000 bodies still in mass graves? If you have tens of thousands of families still with suspicions that their children were stolen at birth trying to find them? If you have torturers still living five hundred meters from their victims? And some of those people say, “Wasn’t it necessary?” We’re not trying to judge what happened in 1977, because the military had a lot of power—there was a lot of fear, so we don’t know politically what was possible in 1977—but five years later, ten years later, fifteen years later, how could this not have been addressed?

AC: This is the question that hovers over the film: How is it possible? How is it possible in 2019 in a Western democracy that we have these numbers, because the numbers are just chilling.  We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of children who were stolen.

Franco supporters in modern-day Spain. Photo courtesy of Argot pictures.

Franco supporters in modern-day Spain. Photo courtesy of Argot Pictures.


DT: Franco supporters still seem to have a strong voice in Spain—the Make Spain Great Again rally you show in the film was really shocking—while many of the young people you interviewed had never even heard of the Amnesty Law. What consequences does that have for contemporary Spain?

AC: A huge part of the population has no idea what happened. The younger generation doesn’t study anything in school. They know vaguely who Franco was. They know there was a civil war, but they view the two sides with a false equivalency.

RB: Saying there were two sides, like what Trump said about Charlottesville [i.e., there were some “very fine people on both sides”].

AC: It’s very hard to act on the present if you don’t understand your past, but in relation to your question, something very powerful has happened in Spain with the film.  It’s had a tremendous impact. A million people have seen it on prime time national TV, and the young people react very emotionally.

RB: It’s a revelation to them.

AC: They’re saying, “This is a different country than I thought I was living in.” It’s a very painful epiphane. People are very indignant, but the mandate to them is, Act on it now that you know. It wasn’t your fault that you didn’t know before, but now you do.  The film is serving as a tool for a conversation that’s very much needed and urgent in Spain. We just launched a school campaign to show the film for free in schools and high schools.


DT: Did you have trouble making the film?

RB: There was no official obstacle, there was no danger in making a film like this; in all of those senses Spain is a very safe, modern, secure, and sophisticated democracy. The big challenge is really the silence:  you can make a film about this, but will anyone watch it? Will anyone broadcast it? Will anyone support it? We applied to the traditional funding sources in Spain and didn’t get support. Later in the process we were very lucky that Pedro Almodovar and his production company decided to come on board as executive producers and provide some real encouragement and strategic support for the film.

The great challenge was, Will anyone in Spain ever see this, or will it be relegated to the community of victims and the left? There are films about this, there are books about this, but they don’t get to the center necessarily, so we developed a strategy. Part of our strategy was to premiere outside Spain. We had to generate a pedigree and a prestige for the film so that when we arrived [in Spain] it would be impeccable and unstoppable.

The film premiered in February 2018 in Berlin at the Berlinale. It won the Panorama audience award, and it won the peace prize. That combination means it works as a movie and it works for the human rights community. There were of course film journalists from Spain who started to report on the film, so the word started coming back. We spent nine months outside Spain building up the momentum around the film, which opened theatrically in Spain in November 2018, four days before the anniversary of Franco’s death.

RB: Of course the core audience was there, but the press from the left all the way to the right wrote about the film. A quite conservative newspaper wrote a good review, and an article in another right-wing newspaper began with the title written as a question: “Should we forget the pact of forgetting?”

So the film served as a jumping-off point for this conversation that we wanted to catalyze. We planned to make a film that was profoundly human, where we could pose the question, If you look into Maria Martin’s eyes, could you say, “You need to forget?” If you pose things in the present, person to person, it’s very, very hard to turn a blind eye.

Twenty-five thousand people went to see it in theaters. There were op-eds written about the film, then it won the Goya, which is Spain’s Academy Award. Six of the protagonists were onstage, which led to applause in front of millions of people on television. We’re very grateful that two months after that, public television in Spain aired the film in prime time, on a series that usually gets about 200,000 spectators. Two hours before the broadcast, the prime minister of Spain tweeted that everyone should watch the film, and leaders of other parties tweeted. More than a million people ended up watching the film that night. That night the film was the number two trending topic on Twitter in Spain.

AC: With 52,000 tweets. Besides our film being the trending topic, something else emerged over the night that we hadn’t expected. Our film being the number two trending topic started to go down at 7:00 a.m., but “Amnesty Law 1977” became the trending topic number 3 by 7:00 a.m. People started asking about the Amnesty Law, whereas before they knew nothing about it. With that we can truly say the film has become part of the national conversation. When else can we say that in our lives? But in a way this is why we made the film, and now it’s beautiful, and now we came here to create another conversation.


DT: Victor Hugo said, “No force on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.” Did you have a sense that this was the right time for this film?

AC: When we started working on the film in 2011, we would tell people what we were doing and they would say, “Why are you doing this?” But what happened is that over the years, the Argentine lawsuit progressed and the plaintiffs broke through on national news, editorials, and newspapers. By the time the film came out, it was suddenly fashionable to talk about this issue.

Although we had been working on the film for seven years, it came out at the right time. We had the right film at the right time to create that conversation.

RB: And we had the right strategy.


DT: Talk about the footage, both material that you shot and the archival footage you found.

AC: We filmed about 450 hours of footage. I do the camera and Robert does the sound. It was very important to us to create the  kind of intimacy that comes with a two-person crew; when the characters are talking to the camera, they’re really talking to me, and as a viewer you can feel that on the screen.

About the archival footage: six months into the edit we had a beautiful cut with the characters’ exploration and their arcs, yet the people we showed it to didn’t feel anything. So we understood that what was missing was the context. If you as a viewer are not able to understand the context of our characters, what they’re fighting against, who their antagonists were, it’s really hard to feel empathy for them. We realized at that point that we needed a lot of context—or enough to understand exactly what they were going through and why they were dong what they were doing. That’s when we started incorporating all this archival footage. It ended up being a two-year search.

Chato, who was tortured by Franco's men when he was in his twenties. is another plaintiff in Judge Servini's case.

Chato, who was tortured by Franco’s men when he was in his twenties. is another plaintiff in Judge Servini’s case.


DT:  It was because of the archival footage that you get flashes of Hitler and Stalin. I must confess that prior to seeing your film, I made the connection intellectually but not emotionally, perhaps because Spain had never been on the American horizon the same way that Germany or Russia were.

AC: In addition to the pact of forgetting, there’s the presentation of Franco as a benign old gentleman so that people would accept Franco as one of the lesser evils of the cold war. Chato makes a joke that when Europe was liberated, they forgot to cross the Pyrenees. It was part of this idea that things were OK.

DT: Americans might know about the Spanish Civil War because of Ernest Hemingway, but that’s it.

RB: As an American, what I remember studying, and part of why this subject is so fascinating to me, is the fact that the Spanish Civil War is always phrased as a prologue or a prelude to WWII, so you kind of know that Hitler was involved.

AC: In Spain that’s not the framing for the discussion of the Civil War, but outside it is.

RB: You kind of think, Oh yeah, there was the Spanish Civil War, and then you see WWII as the big landmark in twentieth-century European history, and then the war was over. And you kind of forget there was this dictator who stayed in power in Spain for forty years. I think very few Americans know that.

AC: It was very important that people knew about the film in Spain, but it was also very important that the film worked internationally. We always thought we were going to have to have two versions of the film—one for Spain and one for international—but it ended up being the same version because people in Spain don’t know anything.

It’s also very important that the film is able to put a mirror to other societies as well. Anywhere the film goes there are all these parallels. We just had a screening for UC Davis students. One of the students said, “The whole conversation about the removal of street signs [i.e., changing street names that honored officials in Franco’s regime] is exactly the same conversation I just had about the removal of Confederate monuments.”


DT: Precisely: American culture has never really addressed our history of slavery. At the end of your film, Judge Maria Servini de Cubria has not yet been granted permission to extradite the murderer known as Billy the Kid.

AC: The Spanish authorities keep blocking the extradition of those indicted, and that continues to be the case. We just had elections in Spain, and the center left, social democracy party won, so now there’s a door for pushing in that area of access to justice and memory and recognition. The three pillars of transitional justice are truth, justice, and reparation, so a new moment opens where all these things are possible. Our work in Spain is going to be to screen the film in all the regional parliaments in Spain.

DT: Would international pressure on the Spanish government move the needle at all?

RB: There actually has been a lot of international pressure. The UN has written reports from multiple commissions condemning it, and a UN special rapporteur is coming to New York City on Friday to introduce the film at the Film Forum. He’ll be talking about how the Amnesty Law needs to be repealed.

So there’s been a lot of that pressure, but I think it’s absolutely essential that there continues to be that pressure. Almost 90,000 people have gone to the theaters to see the film in France,  and it’s screening in Portugal right now, so all of that pressure helps.

One of our questions was, How do you change the discourse within Spain, and especially how do you reach the center? A couple of years ago, there was a vote in the parliament to modify the Amnesty Law so that it couldn’t apply to crimes against humanity. Whose votes did not support that? The Spanish Workers’ Socialist Party (PSOE), the center left party that just won the elections and will probably lead the new government. What we’ve realized is that if the film could help move the center on this issue, you could make big changes. Obviously this is an issue that has been unwinnable for eighty years, so is this a change that can happen in two years, is this a change that will need twenty years? It’s really hard to know, but that is part of our mission with the film.


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