There is no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity. That’s the rallying cry for the justice seekers in Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar’s documentary The Silence of Others, one of the bitterest cinematic history lessons you’ll ever see.
At issue are the conduct and aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. The legally elected government of the Republic of Spain was the target of a 1936 coup d’etat by a renegade force of its own army officers, based in Spanish Morocco and led by rightwing general Francisco Franco. United behind Franco’s Nationalists was a surly collection of fascists, monarchists, and Roman Catholics, disturbed by the election of a leftist popular government and determined to restore the monarchy and vanquish the “reds.”
The resulting conflict became a dress rehearsal for World War II, with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany aiding Franco and Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union backing the Republicans. Both sides committed atrocities, but typically, the fascists seemed to especially relish their vengeance. By some estimates 1 million persons died in the struggle, which ended with the victorious Franco assuming the title of Caudillo de España, por la gracia de Diós — a dictatorship that ended when he died in 1975. So in effect, at the end of WWII fascism was duly defeated, except in Spain.
The doc, exec-produced by filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, makes a point of hearing what María Martín has to say. The frail old abuelita from Pedro Bernardo, Ávila tells the camera she was six years old when they came for her mother, a farm worker suspected of labor organizing. The abducted woman’s body was found by the side of the road, stripped naked and shot. The town’s officials would not allow her family to bury her in the cemetery, so she was stacked together with the corpses of other victims in an unmarked mass grave now covered by a highway.
Other interview subjects in this chilling film relate similar stories of imprisonment, torture, disappeared relatives, and the horrific practice — adopted from Nazi eugenics programs — of stealing babies from “unfit” mothers at birth, to be raised “properly” by officially approved strangers. Over the years people organized to demand an accounting of Spain’s 40-year state terrorism, but little was ever done. Under the country’s Pact of Forgetting, amnesty was granted to war criminals, and schools never taught the true consequences of franquismo. Many Spaniards don’t know, and don’t want to know. But some can never forget.
With that sad history behind them, civil rights lawyers and judges — in Spain, and also Chile and Argentina, where Franco admirers later conducted their own brutal clampdowns — have banded together in recent times to seek truth and justice from rulers with something to hide. The fight has never been easy. Directors Carracedo and Bahar hear from an array of attorneys, judges, protestors, victims’ rights activists, survivors of political thuggery, and even the current King of Spain, Felipe VI, who makes absolutely no mention of his Bourbon ancestor, Marie Antoinette of France, in calling for an end to score-settling. (One weary-looking protestor notes: “No one has ever asked us for forgiveness. People don’t ask, they demand that you forgive.”)
Meanwhile, the doc assures us that truth commissions have sprung up in many countries that have trampled human rights, including Argentina, Chile, Rwanda, and Cambodia — and that the U.N. is investigating violations of its principles. We are taken to the unearthing of a mass grave in a Spanish cemetery, aided by DNA evidence gathering. Streets and plazas in Spain that memorialized war criminals are now being renamed. And yet the government of Spain continues to block the extradition of Spaniards accused in Argentine courts of crimes against humanity, under the rules of Universal Jurisdiction.
In one scene we witness a crowd of modern-day Spanish fascists in a town square, giving the stiff-armed salute we recognize all too well. As if to drive home the point, there’s a shot of a vendor selling T-shirts that proclaim in English: “Make Spain Great Again.” Thank you, filmmakers and Argot Pictures, for reminding us there is still work to do.
Filmmaker Robert Bahar will appear in Q&A with journalist Adam Hochschild at the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, May 18, at 3 p.m. The regular Elmwood opening is May 24.