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Remembering the Pact of Forgetting: 'The Silence of Others' Rewrites the History of the Franco Regime

By Bernardo Ruiz

From 'The Silence of Others." Photo: Almudena Carracedo. (c): "The Silence of Others."

Filmed over seven years, The Silence of Others reveals the epic struggle of victims of Spain’s 40-year dictatorship under General Francisco Franco as they organize a groundbreaking international lawsuit and fight a so-called “pact of forgetting” around the crimes they suffered. It is a compelling and moving cautionary tale about fascism and the dangers of forgetting the past.

The Silence of Others is the winner of a 2019 Goya—Spain’s Academy Award— the Berlinale Panorama Audience Award, Berlinale Peace Film Prize, Sheffield Doc/Fest Grand Jury Award, the IDA Pare Lorentz Award, an IDA Documentary Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature, and more than 25 other international awards. It was shortlisted for the 91st Academy Awards. The film was directed by Emmy-winning filmmakers Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar and executive-produced by Pedro Almodóvar.

The Silence of Others launches a theatrical run on May 8 at the Film Forum in New York City and will air September 30 on PBS’ POV. Documentary caught up with the filmmakers by phone in Spain as they were wrapping up their festival run and prepping for their Film Forum gig.

Documentary: Walk me through the genesis of the film. What sparked this process?

Almudena Carracedo: I was making Made in L.A. and the issue of human rights abuses in my native Spain was something that just kept growing inside me, as something painful. I was devoting attention to other parts of the world, but I was actually denying attention to something that was very close to me, my history, my heart. And right around the time when we finished Made in L.A., that became more acute.

In 2010 our daughter was born. And the scandal of “stolen children” exploded in Spain. And I remember reading these stories and just being deeply impacted by them. I remember talking to Robert [Bahar] and saying, “This is our next film.”

We started filming in 2011 and we [quickly] realized that for the kind of film we wanted to make, it meant us moving to Spain. So in 2012, we put everything in storage in New Jersey, thinking it was going to be a year or two, and we moved to Spain.

Robert Bahar: [laughs] Each month, I receive the bill for a storage space in New Jersey; to live in two countries is to live in no country.

But I think as an American, you learn about the Spanish Civil War as a prelude to World War II. You learn about the rise of fascism in Europe, and you read Hemingway and you learn about the International Brigades. And that's kind of what you know. In my case, I am Jewish and the cause against fascism and Spain was very important to the Jewish community in the US and all over the world. My family was touched by the Holocaust, so I also responded to this story very deeply. But I also responded to the lack of information about this history.

D: Given that very silence that you are both referencing, given that general lack of understanding about this history—especially in the United States—how does that make your job as producers more challenging in the early stages of the film, as you’re seeking to gather support? How much of a history lesson are you having to provide potential funders and supporters before you can even start the filmmaking process?

RB: I was going to festivals and markets. I would show them the trailer and I would start the pitch with a little history lesson. I would basically start by explaining that Franco was Spain's dictator for 40 years and when he died, there was this amnesty law and this “pact of forgetting.” So what I had to do was really put people almost in my shoes. [My thinking was that] if you tell the story powerfully to them—first just in a pitch—then they would be as moved to action as I was as an outsider. Of course, Almudena was moved for insider reasons. And I think [ultimately] the evolution of that insider/outsider perspective was quite important.

AC: It was very important for us that the film be told from both “inside” and “outside” perspectives. For instance, I had to have a lot of my assumptions challenged by the outside. And we had an international team: Kim Roberts [editor] is American, Ricardo Acosta [editor] is Cuban, our composers are Mexican and we have funding from different parts of the world. They all gave us feedback on the film. I think the film is richer because of that international collaboration and that inside/outside perspective.

D: But given that the whole point of the film is to tell a story about a neglected or under-narrated portion of history, you're facing this uphill battle as you seek support. How were you navigating that?

AC: That’s actually a great question because that resistance is the very reason everything has been forgotten. People don't really know anything about Spain because international democracy is kind of whitewashed. What happened in Spain was not considered an international human rights abuse situation. So for funders, they often fund the global south because they don't consider human rights abuses in the global north. Part of our job was also to reframe the situation of human rights for Spain. Now it seems obvious. But it was a process where we had to also convince funders that this was an important story and part of a continuum of human rights films.

D: That brings up an important question. Right now, within the documentary community, there’s a broader debate, as you are both well aware, about the soul of documentary. Is it social justice activism? Is it journalism? Is it art? I personally find the debate a little bit tiresome, but people do pick sides. And powerful funders, at different times, decide on an agenda to support work within these divisions. It is a reality that all of us as filmmakers have to face. How have you been navigating these funding realities or political realities?

RB: If someone says that we've lost the art of documentary because we're focusing too much on the activism, one is a distraction from the other. In our case we've really tried to work towards the convergence of all of those things. So the vision of this film was partly journalistic. In other words, we must reveal something people do not know about the impunity in Spain. But there was also a mission that was poetic and emotional. We must convey what it feels like to live in silence for 40 years, to have fear. We decided we wanted to unpack all of these things; some of that unpacking we do with poetry, and some we do with key facts that need to be placed at exactly the right moment in the film.

So I would fight back a little bit against people saying that true documentary is one thing or is another. I also think that as someone who does identify human rights and social justice as a real part of what spurs me and spurs us to do this work, it's important to defend that work within the documentary world. I know sometimes there've been people who've been putting out an argument saying, “Well, because there is ‘issue-based’ funding or there's funding for impact,” as if people are just making films about those subjects because they know there is funding. I reject that 100 percent. Why are we making these films? Why are we spending seven years making this film? Because we believe that cinema can be a powerful tool for moving people, and for discourse in the world.

AC: I also think that very often human rights films are labeled as being too ugly. We wanted to challenge that. We wanted to reach beyond our core audience. But [the goal] was also to make a beautiful film. One of the films that really moved me in my evolution towards dealing with my own memory or the memory of my own country was La memoria obstinada, by Patricio Guzman, in which he takes [his previous film] La batalla de Chile and shows it to high school students, and their reaction is so much like the reactions we have had—the idea that this story that has been stolen from me and I have the right of access to it. These things don't really go away until you deal with that history, and you put it back into the history books, and people can feel that that sense of reparation much more, even if you can actually engage in a justice process.

From "The Silence of Others." Photo: : Álvaro Minguito. (c): "The Silence of Others"

D: Toward that end, how has the film been received in Spain?

AC: In Spain, the documentary form is very much exploding now, but it’s still perceived as the underdog, so a documentary feature on human rights abuses— and even less so on this issue—was not expected to be in theaters for nine weeks straight. So this was a true phenomenon here. We were a trending topic. But the most amazing thing is the kind of conversation that the film is sparking. People were super active on Facebook and Twitter. And the other beautiful thing that's happened is the intergenerational conversation. We really expected a big backlash [from some press]. The film has had a national broadcast on primetime TV in Spain--with the most amazing impact. The film reached 1.2 million people, was trending topic # 2 all across Spain [52k tweets!], even the president of Spain tweeted two hours before the broadcast that everyone should watch it. 

RB: Beginning in Berlin, when the film won the Audience Award for Panorama and the Peace Prize, we started to see center-right newspapers [in Spain] writing about the film in a way that was transcendent, that wasn't seeing it as something partisan. Here in Spain, when the film premiered, the amount of trust was just incredible. And a conservative newspaper, La Razón, titled its article about the film, “Should We Forget the Pact of Forgetting?” For that to be a headline in La Razón is quite amazing. In El Confidencial there was a headline, "The Film That Reopens the Debate about the Pact of Forgetting." This was happening in national newspapers. And then there would full-page stories about this in the local press. So to get a sense of the impact that the film is having, over 20,000 people have come to movie theaters to see it.

AC: At the same level, people would always ask us, “Why does anyone need this film?” So the film is proving that people are hungry to talk about it. There's an amazing intergenerational conversation that the film is sparking, about an issue that was absent from the public news. Robert mentioned the two awards at Berlin; what was fascinating about those awards is they were the Peace Prize and the Audience Award. That’s when we understood that we could reach both audiences—not just the choir.

RB: And that goes back to your question about the debate within the documentary world. Can you create a work of cinema that will move people in a profound way and create something that within the human rights community, is precise, is thoughtful and works to advance discourse?

D: And what kinds of reactions are you having in the US? What are you thinking about as you lead up to your theatrical run this month and the broadcast in the fall?

AC: It was clear to us that we had to start [the distribution] outside of Spain—and that's why we started in Berlin. So we built a campaign for nine months before arriving to Spain—there have been over 25 awards now, which is absolutely amazing. But it really speaks to the fact that the film is about a lot more than Spain. People use the film as a mirror to talk about their own legacies of past violence. The film has screened in many parts of the world, and everywhere we go, there are questions about what has been silenced. In the US, people are seeing it as a film about the legacies of fascism and the dangers of rewriting history, in a moment where you have families being separated at the border and you have your civil liberties being thrown into question.

RB: The film won Best Foreign Documentary at Michael Moore's film festival in Traverse City, Michigan. People see the film as very relevant, and the dangers of what's happening in the United States almost feel more pressing. Hopefully this tool of universal jurisdiction provides a little hope to victims of crimes that are being perpetrated by their own states against them. I actually think this is a very important moment to bring the film to the United States.

AC: The film is a grain of sand. And in Spain, more of this will have to happen. But when you go to a screening and the conversations emerge and these young people are crying and hugging the older people, you feel like everything was worth it. I feel like I put my little grain of sand in the history of the country.


Bernardo Ruiz’ latest film, Harvest Season, premieres May 13 on PBS’ Independent Lens.