Remembering Latin America’s Forgotten Ones
“Olvidados” is one of those gripping, hard hitting political pictures about Latin America, a tradition including Sergei Eisenstein’s 1932 epic “Que Viva Mexico!”, Costa-Gavras’ 1972 “State of Siege” and 1982 “Missing”, Roger Spottiswoode’s 1983 “Under Fire” and Oliver Stone’s 1986 “Salvador.”
Like those classics “Olvidados” graphically dramatizes social struggles south of the border, the dictatorial reactionary regimes armed and trained by the Yankee colossus in the north. Although covering similar territory, the aforementioned movies were made by North Americans and Europeans, while “Olvidados” is largely a Latin American production
Set and shot mostly in Bolivia and Chile, “Olvidados” (the forgotten, vanished people) creatively uses a flashback structure to tell a harrowing tale. The screenplay dramatizes the Washington-backed campaign of state terror during the 1970s in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia aimed at wiping out the South American Left. Clips of former Secretary State Kissinger and of the School of the Americas gesture to Uncle Sam’s imperial role in Operation Condor’s massive war against land reform, human rights and socialism in South America that, according to press notes, claimed as many as 60,000 lives, 400,000 political prisoners and up to 30,000 disappeared.
The film begins in contemporary La Paz, where, after observing a book signing for an expose of Operation Condor, former General José Mendieta (Mexican actor Damián Alcázar, who may be familiar to Western audiences for his roles in Bruce Beresford’s 2003 made-for-TV movie “And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself” and 2008’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”) suffers a heart attack. Haunted by his role in the anti-communist crusade, the elderly retired officer flashes back to the assassinations, imprisonments, torture, etc., that he helped lead and carry out. As revolutionary psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon noted, perpetrating human rights abuses also takes its toll on the torturers. Suffering perhaps from a form of PTSD, Mendieta sets his troubled memories down on paper in the form of a long letter to his son Pablo (Bernardo Peña), who lives in New York (where some scenes were shot).
Among the forgotten, the stricken Mendieta remembers are journalist Marco (Carlotto Cotta) and his pregnant wife Luciá, political prisoners ensnared in Operation Condor’s murderous inquisition. Through these and other characters, the skilled actors, screenwriters and director dramatize and humanize the horrors of the CIA-backed auto-de-fé. Torture is explicitly shot, including electrodes applied to sensitive body parts and water boarding, with vividly rendered inside-the-bucket shots that literally takes viewers inside this “enhanced interrogation” technique
“Olvidados” comes full circle when Pablo flies home to see his father, the onetime torturer, dying in the hospital. Ironically, the transplanted New Yorker is detained at passport control by a functionary of the new Bolivia, led by progressive President Evo Morales, the South American nation’s first indigenous president. Knowing who Pablo’s father is, the government official grills him but - in what may be emblematic of the differences between the ancien régime and that of Evo’s Movement for Socialism - he is allowed to enter Bolivia, without being tortured.
As Oliver Stone documented in “South of the Border”, since the gruesome days of Operation Condor a series of left leaning governments has come to power across much of the Western Hemisphere - and films such as “Olvidados,” or the 2013 Simon Bolivar biopic “The Liberator” directed by Caracas-born Alberto Arvelo, indicate the emergence of a politically conscious cinema with strong humanist dimensions. This is a film trend full of promise and well worth, literally, keeping one’s eyes on. Thankfully Los Angeles-based Cinema Libre Studio (www.cinemalibrestudio.com) is making this possible by releasing “Olvidados” and similar movies here in “el Norte.”
“Olvidados” opens in New York at the Village East Cinema on Sept. 18 and in L.A. at the Laemmle Royal on Oct. 2 and premieres on HBO Latino in December 2015. For more info see: www.olvidadosfilm.com/.
L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell is The Progressive Magazine’s “Man In Hollywood.”He has interviewed many talents such as Costa-Gavras and Oliver Stone (twice) for this magazine. His Progressive interview with America’s former Poet Laureate is in the new book “Conversations With W.S. Merwin.” Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).