Talking Policy: Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar on Human Rights in Post-Franco Spain

Spain’s 1977 Amnesty Law, also referred to as the “pact of forgetting,” was instated two years after the death of dictator Francisco Franco, who ruled the country from 1939 to 1975. The law freed political prisoners, protected from prosecution the crimes committed during Franco’s rule, and banned investigation of Franco-era human rights violations. The narrative set forth by the government was that this would help Spain more smoothly transition to democracy and concentrate on the future. In the documentary film The Silence of The Others, which was featured at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival this year, filmmakers Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar follow the victims of Franco-era human rights abuses who are fighting against the Amnesty Law. One of the war crimes they focus on is the cases of stolen babies, which began in the Franco era but continued well into the 90s; doctors would inform mothers that their babies had died, and give the babies to families loyal to the Franco regime. Trials have recently begun as those affected seek justice. World Policy Journal spoke with Carracedo and Bahar about the Amnesty Law and how human rights transcend political beliefs.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Can you tell us about the legacy of Francisco Franco in Spain, and why you decided to tell this story in your film?

ALMUDENA CARRACEDO: I am Spanish. I grew up in Spain during the democratic era and although my generation was very politicized, the legacy of Franco was not an issue we felt we had to deal with. We were organizing for human rights elsewhere and we were appalled to hear about Argentina’s stolen children [the children of people who had been “disappeared” by the military junta in the 1970s], but it never occurred to us to connect this back to our own country. I think with time, my generation—those born in the 70s—has come to realize that this is something we have to address.

Our other films have been about other plights for justice and dignity—for example, our previous film was about the struggle of undocumented Latina immigrant workers in Los Angeles. I realized at a certain point that we also have to document the struggle that’s happening in my own country. Then, in 2010, cases of stolen children started coming out in Spain. We were living in the U.S. at the time, and we decided to come to Spain and make this film. So we packed up our stuff in New York, put it in storage in New Jersey, and moved to Spain.

ROBERT BAHAR: I’m from the United States, and when I grew up we learned about the Spanish Civil War. You studied about the Spanish Civil War as a prologue or rehearsal for WWII: Nazis, Mussolini, and Hemingway are involved. But I realized that you don’t learn anything about the 40-year-long dictatorship or the Amnesty Law, this pact of forgetting, which granted amnesty for crimes that took place under the dictatorship and made them impossible to investigate officially. Almudena and I had been traveling back and forth to Spain, and once the case of the stolen children started emerging, we were both moved to start investigating this.

This case was also comparable to the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa, or the international tribunals that have been set up to prosecute grave human rights crimes. I’m familiar with these infrastructures, so it was shocking that all of these things in Spain had never been addressed, and that these victims and survivors had been marginalized or made almost invisible.

WPJ: The film closely follows the lives and stories of different individuals. Can you tell me about the people you chose to interview?

AC: It was a seven-year process—we followed several victims of the Franco dictatorship who decided to become plaintiffs to seek justice. Of all the different issues encompassed by the Argentine lawsuit [a Buenos Aires judge claimed universal jurisdiction over serious human rights abuses under Franco], the film ended up centering on three. One concerns the hundreds of thousands of extrajudicial killings and executions of those who either had taken part in the earlier democratic regime or were simply progressive. Many of these people are still in mass graves; they have not been exhumed and buried properly. We have two characters in the film whose stories relate to this issue.

RB: One such character is Maria Martin, who’s in the opening scene of the film. Her mother was executed in 1936, and her body is in a mass grave by the side of a rural highway. Her family had been trying to recover the body for 80 years. First, her father fought to get her mother’s body out of that mass grave so that they could bury her in a cemetery spot. When the father died, Maria took on that struggle. Hers is one of those amazing cases where you see the contradiction in the pact of forgetting, this belief that we can simply forget what happened. Within families where there were victims and survivors of crime, the memories are passed down from generation to generation.

AC: The second thread in the film concerns the late years of the Franco regime, when young people organized in the streets against the dictatorship and for democracy. The late years of the Franco regime were especially cruel, and a lot of people died in the streets or were detained. One of our characters, Chato (José María Galante), was brutally tortured when he was 24. What’s most grueling is that his torturer was awarded a medal of honor, and now lives near him, so Chato has to encounter him on the streets.

The third thread is the cases of stolen children, for which we don’t know the exact numbers. One judge carried out an investigation; he estimated that, only through 1952, there were 30,000 cases of stolen children. This is something that kept happening well into the 90s when democracy was instated. One of the mothers of the stolen children said: “You can’t stop the machinery once it starts. You can’t stop it just because Franco died, this is something that has many sectors of society involved.” It’s been going on for a long time, so we’re potentially talking about hundreds of thousands of kids that were stolen.

WPJ: In the film, you feature individuals who have gone through vastly different types of oppression under the Franco regime. Some want to see their torturers imprisoned; others want to find the bodies of their families. What does justice mean for those in Spain who have different grievances and different desired outcomes?

RB: It’s the idea of transitional justice. There are some people who are seeking truth—they want to know if their child was stolen, and if so, where they are. Some people are seeking justice, like Chato in his pursuit of his torturer, Billy the Kid—he wants to see Billy the Kid tried in a courthouse. There are some who seek reparations. In the cases of stolen children, a national DNA database would be a tremendous step that could help families that suspect their child was stolen to investigate and find the child. Some people are focused on recognition: a museum of memory, or a plaque, visible to tourists and students, allowing them to get to know some of the history.

The more people we met, the more we realized that there was a spectrum of measures of justice they were seeking. And it wasn’t that everyone just wanted truth, or that everyone just wanted perpetrators to be tried. In the case of Maria Martin, she said in the film, “I don’t want anything to happen to anyone, I’m not seeking vengeance, I just want my mother’s remains.” That speaks to the different kinds of unfinished business that remain.

WPJ: The film featured short clips of politicians and civilians explaining their opposition to repealing the amnesty law, claiming that talking about the past will hinder future growth and fracture the nation. How prevalent are these arguments today, and how do supporters of the repeal respond to them?

RB: For decades, the argument has been that this has to be forgotten, and that the only way to move forward is to not talk about this anymore. There’s the implication that if you do open it up, it could divide the country again, with neighbor killing neighbor, brother killing brother. This was the rhetoric throughout Franco’s dictatorship, and it is still frequently used, albeit in a softer way. I think the victims and the survivors would argue that the act of forgetting may have worked and helped for some, but it marginalized and made invisible the victims and survivors, thereby leading to decades of suffering. It is not a choice that has actually led to healing or reconciliation.

The cost of the past is not just borne by victims and survivors, but instead, the entire society, even if it doesn’t realize it. There are a number of people who trace the culture and crisis of corruption to the dictatorship. This culture of people taking advantage of their positions for personal gain developed during the dictatorship. So there are other ways that Spanish society is affected, even though many people may feel that their families weren’t directly affected.

WPJ: How have viewers reacted to the film in Spain?

AC: We are premiering the film theatrically in the fall in Spain. Our idea was always to go outside the country first, then return to Spain with recognition and awards so that we could not be quickly dismissed, as we know that the film will face powerful reactions in Spain. But we have had Spanish audiences at every festival we’ve gone to, and the response has been absolutely amazing. Last night, I was talking to a woman from Spain, and she has always insisted that we must forget. As she was watching the film, it slowly dawned on her that this is not about forgetting the past, but instead is about the present, the need for justice, and human rights. So for her, it was a complete revelation and a transformation of what she had always thought the country must do. If she is a representation of what’s going to happen, then, wonderful! We want people to see this because we, as Spaniards, have been taught to believe certain things. I think it’s the right time now for Spaniards to start rethinking, not just about our past, but also about our present.

RB: In addition to individual Spaniards, when the film premiered in Berlin, there was a lot of press and interest from Spain. There were beautiful pieces written about the film in El País and El Mundo, which are in different positions on the political spectrum. While there are some issues that people may never agree on, the film poses question such as: Should Maria Martin still have to suffer and be blocked from getting her mother’s remains? Should Chato’s torturer still be out there, while nothing happens to him? Should victims of cases of stolen children have such difficulty in trying to access any information that would help them figure out what happened? If the questions are asked as questions of human rights, then we expect that there’s going to be a lot of agreement. Spain is sufficiently developed, democratic, and strong to deal with some of those basic questions. It’s not about everyone agreeing on exactly what happened in the Spanish Civil War, because sometimes you get sidetracked there. That’s a question to be written about and explored, but the pressing human rights question of today transcends sides and politics. It becomes a question about victims and survivors, and other ways that the [Franco] legacy manifests itself, like in street signs or memorials. It’s about the present and the future.

WPJ: Has the debate about this issue changed at all since the filming of your documentary?

RB: In the seven years since we started, there has been a real opening around these issues, and that is, in part, attributed to the social movements that you see develop in the film. The organizations involved in the lawsuit have now been working for 10, 15, or 20 years on these issues. And there’s also a younger generation—the 15-M (an anti-austerity movement in Spain) generation—that is open, interested, and hungry to learn more about this. That generation is also starting to have more and more political influence. There’s more and more of an opening to this conversation.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

[Interview conducted by Minsoo Bae]

[Photo courtesy of Almudena Carracedo]

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