Documentary, not rated, 96 minutes, in Spanish with subtitles, The Screen, 3 chiles
María Martín — a frail, white-haired, toothless octogenarian — sits by the side of a paved road that covers the spot where, when she was six, her mother was murdered by fascist troops, her corpse left to rot. María’s mother was one of more than 100,000 civilian victims of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath who were accused of communist or leftist tendencies, “disappeared,” and executed.
The brutal regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco continued until his death in 1975, at which time it was celebrated weekly by Chevy Chase on the “Weekend Update” segment of the brand new Saturday Night Live. “Tonight’s top story: Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead,” he intoned. This is relevant only because what happened next in Spain echoes another catchphrase from that same segment, uttered by Gilda Radner’s Emily Litella: “Never mind.”
Amid the national outpouring of pent-up bitterness that followed the dictator’s death, Spain’s politicians (many of whom were Franco acolytes) enacted the Pact of Forgetting, in an attempt to erase the atrocities of the Franco era from the nation’s memory. When that was followed a few years later by a general amnesty for both political prisoners and war criminals and their associates, the job was completed. “Never mind,” said Spain, and set the country on a course of sweeping its terrible past under an amnesiac rug and moving on. Spain still honors many of the architects of Franco’s atrocities with statues and street names.
Directors Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo have dug up that past in this powerful, often shocking documentary that has been years in the making, as they follow a group of activists bent on seeing justice done. Among those seeking closure are people hoping to get their murdered relatives exhumed from mass graves for a proper burial, women whose babies were stolen at birth by the Franco regime, and survivors of torture. José María Galante, a former student activist, shows us the building on his block where the sadistic cop known as “Billy the Kid,” who tortured him and many others, still lives unpunished.
The revelations of Franco-era horrors, including some chilling footage of actual mass executions, are stunning. The legal wranglings that take up a lot of the picture are important, although less dramatically compelling. But it all sends the strong message that forgetting atrocities is not a solution. And it urgently reminds us, in an era when right-wing strongmen are gaining power in many parts of the world, that only by confronting the horrors of the past can we hope to keep them from happening again.