Teaching La Historia Oficial

Nicolas Poppe

 

Drawing on my own interdisciplinary intellectual formation, I teach a wide range of texts of cultural production in my courses. On any given day, I may teach graffiti and a radio drama, a novel and a video game, or a few poems and a film in my language and content courses. Like so many other disciplines, mine—which once was referred to as Spanish but now takes on so many permutations sometimes I find it difficult to think of it as anything more than an afterimage—is no longer as defined as it once was. We may still teach Spanish (as well as several other languages, depending on the department), but our upper-division courses look little like those of the past, even those of my own increasingly less recent undergraduate experience in the late-1990s and early-2000s. Teaching cinema, unsurprisingly, poses its own unique challenges (and rewards) within such a fragmented discipline whose undergraduate majors and minors are typically interested first in language acquisition, second in culture, broadly defined, and third, I hope, in a subfield like Latin American cinema.

Of the films I have taught several times, perhaps Luis Puenzo’s La historia oficial (The Official Story. dir. Luis Puenzo, 1985) has been the most problematic for me. Along others like Tiempo de revancha (Time for Revenge. dir. Adolfo Aristarain, 1981), No habrá más penas ni olvido (Funny Dirty Little War. dir. Héctor Olivera, 1983), and Hombre mirando al sudeste (Man Looking Southeast. dir. Eliseo Subiela, 1985), La historia oficial formed part of the first wave of Argentine films to confront the state terrorism (strongly supported by the United States) of the mid-1970s and early-1980s.[1] Depicting a woman’s growing realization of her complicity in the horrors suffered by her compatriots, La historia oficial was the first Latin American film to win an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (1986).[2] Because of its numerous awards—Norma Aleandro, who played its protagonist, shared the Best Actress Award at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival with Cher for her work on Mask (dir. Peter Bogdanovich, 1985)—and its influence—numerous films of the New Argentine Cinema, for example, represent different aspects of the Guerra Sucia and its sociohistorical legacy—La historia oficial is a film you feel obliged to teach.[3]  Perhaps it is that sense of obligation, or perhaps it is a desire to want to do justice to a film representing horrible injustice, but each time I have assigned La historia oficial, something does not quite fit. And even though teaching cinema within the distinct contexts of a language classroom (or, more specifically, that of a conversation course) and a content one is quite different, I have found that teaching La historia oficial has posed two very specific problems stemming from the film’s narrative: how to confront history and how to approach melodrama.

La historia oficial takes place in March 1983 during a period of transition in which the military government prepared for democratic elections that would be eventually won on October 30 by Raúl Alfonsín.[4]  The tremors of social and political change are felt in the film by its emblematic family, the Ibáñez. A history teacher in a local boys’ school, Alicia (Aleandro) begins to question the origin story of her five-year-old adopted daughter Gaby (Analia Castro). The pater familias Roberto (Héctor Alterio)— described in the film’s script as “45 years old, Dr. in Economics, her husband”—frantically attempts to avoid being crushed by the fall of the military apparatus.[5]  Having benefited greatly from social, political, and economic cronyism, as well as access to American capital and so-called neoliberal reforms, Roberto and his family are depicted in La historia oficial as being (willing or willfully ignorant) accomplices to a government that systematically oppresses its own people. In fact, his father José bitterly argues that “the entire country is going down. Only sons of bitches, thieves, accomplices, and the oldest of my boys went up!”[6] What comes up must come down, however, as the connections Roberto used to procure anything from business deals to his adoptive daughter are disintegrating in his clutched hands.[7]  La historia oficial ends with resolute uncertainty: while Alicia and Roberto’s marriage appears to be over and Gaby seems to have been reconnected with her disappeared family, the lies that held the family together have been just as discredited as the official (hi)story.

It is this process of discrediting that forms the film’s narrative arc. Focusing on Alicia, La historia oficial follows her through her eventual discovery that the stories that had dominated her personal and professional lives were, in fact, nothing more than convenient fictions. Through her interactions with her childhood friend Ana (Chunchuna Villafañé) and her colleague Juan Carlos Benítez (Patricio Contreras), Alicia realizes that her stable life exists on the bones and blood and pain of others. Through centering the film on Alicia, Puenzo was harshly criticized for transforming the torturer into the tortured. Alejandro Agresti, for example, argued that “Nobody speaks about the one who disappeared, nobody speaks about the one who had the problem. It is rather the criminal who has the problem here. He and his criminal wife, a history teacher whose complete ignorance and innocence they are trying to convince me about.”[8] Rather than being justly punished for her crimes, Alicia the accomplice becomes the victim of the crimes from which she benefited.

Especially at the microlevel, the politics of La historia oficial has proven difficult to work through in class. Detached not only from the lived experience of the dictatorship, but also from deep historical contextualization, my students have had apolitical reactions to a decidedly political situation. Due in no small part to the affective connections Aleandro’s performance helps to strengthen, the students I have taught have struggled not to arrive at the same conclusion as Walter Goodman’s review of the film in the New York Times: it “takes us to the place where politics meets the human heart.”[9]  In this sense, La historia oficial is representative of Jens Andermann’s understanding of Argentine cinema during Alfonsín’s transitional presidency. Andermann states that this cinema “us[es] a rather conventional formal language in order to forge an equally nebulous social consciousness around core values associated with democracy and human rights, but without identifying or discussing the political identities and logics of either victims or perpetrators of state terror.”[10] Students—who are conditioned to hear “both sides” of an issue (e.g., making more than two sides an impossibility) no matter its complexity or the legitimacy of a position (i.e., not every side is worth paying attention to)—appreciate the nebulous social consciousness of La historia oficial in a similar manner to Goodman, who states in his review “Beside ‘The Official Story,’ most of the political movies of recent years seem tub thumpers and point pounders. Mr. Puenzo’s film is unwaveringly committed to human rights, yet it imposes no ideology or doctrine.” While not meaning to transform Goodman into a straw man, this perspective seems either clearly naive or terribly disingenuous. Can a film be committed to human rights if, as Agresti suggests, the real victims of state terrorism are not represented? Can the complicit, or even the criminal, also be the victim?

In La historia oficial, these more complex reflections on history and politics are largely ignored by viewers (and, of course, many students) who get pulled into the gravitational force of Alicia’s personal story. This opens the film to critique. For example, the Argentine thinker Hugo Vezzetti insists, “And the fact that a minor film would win the only Oscar obtained by an Argentine film, only for the topic with which it deals, shows that this reduction of politics and history to the language of familial emotions found a public beyond borders.”[11] The film is able to articulate its ostensibly apolitical (or, at least, not sufficiently political) message through the use of the conventions, form, and style of the melodrama.[12] Melodrama, therefore, has become an aspect of the film to be assailed not only by academic critics but also more politically engaged students. It is not, as both a colleague and a student separately commented to me, a “serious” film like those of the New Argentine Cinema. These films—Garage Olimpo (dir. Mario Bechis, 1999) and La mirada invisible (The Invisible Eye. dir. Diego Lerman, 2010) immediately come to mind—depict the violence(s) of the Guerra Sucia in a supposedly more meaningful way.[13]

Melodrama is communicated in many ways in La historia oficial, but it is perhaps most notably expressed through Gaby. Not only does the truth behind her origin drive Alicia throughout the film, pushing the protagonist to actively attempt to reestablish order and virtue amid difficult circumstances, but Gaby’s innocence operates as a moral ground zero. Her innocence is lost, never to be recovered. Her birth parents, brutally murdered by the military dictatorship, will never return. Her adoptive parents, active (Roberto) and passive (Alicia) supporters of that sanguinary regime, are accomplices. She plays a key role at both the beginning and the end of the film. In the beginning, she sings the song “En el país que no recuerdo” (“In the Country I Can’t Remember”) as she bathes. It is a mundane scene in which Alicia and the maid Rosa (Laura Palmucci) hurriedly prepare the young girl for bed, as her father has yet to return from work. In the film’s denouement, Gaby sings “En el país que no recuerdo” to Roberto on the phone. Having been taken by Alicia from the home to her grandparents’, Gaby is oblivious to the brutality inflicted upon her mother by her father. She may not yet know that everything has irreparably changed, but the viewer does.

Gaby is a motivating melodramatic device in La historia oficial. She may not represent direct engagement or political instigation—she is, after all, five years old—but her plight as the true victim of state violence inspires an affective reaction in the viewer. The emotions provoked individually by Gaby and, more broadly, melodrama in La historia oficial have been criticized by my students for moderating the severity and violence of the Argentine state. In many ways, this perspective seems to be commingled with the representation of history in the film. Like Alicia’s initial understanding of official history, melodrama is argued by these students to be a kind of escapism in which truth and reality are denied. This is, of course, a naïve understanding of the possibilities of melodrama, particularly regarding political and social critique. Perhaps more troubling, this assessment (advanced by male and female students) often borders on social critique. Not only are women disregarded as consumers of the film’s unserious melodrama, but also women of certain social classes. In either instance, melodrama is seen as somehow inappropriate.

The ways in which melodrama and history function in La historia oficial have made the film particularly difficult for me to teach in the context of both language and film classes. Even though students seemingly got more out of our discussions after in-depth readings about the historical situation and an introduction to theoretical texts problematizing the meaning(s) of melodrama, something still fell short. In a certain sense, these separate but connected aspects of La historia oficial are illustrative of the difficulties of teaching any kind of industrial representation of a historical tragedy like the Guerra Sucia. Even though every text provides its own challenges in the classroom, teaching a film like El secreto de sus ojos, which may have already replaced La historia oficial in course syllabi in the U.S. and beyond, shares some of the same central concerns: How do we approach a history that is not our own through film? Why do we accept or reject modes like melodrama? And what are the implications of both?

[Postscript: On November 23, 2015—the day after ballotage results handed the Argentine presidency to center-right politician Mauricio Macri, thus ending twelve years of kirchnerismo, the left-wing populism of former presidents Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015)—the conservative daily La Nación ran the editorial “No más venganza” (“No More Revenge”). Repudiated publicly by scores of its own staff, the editorial argues, “A day after the citizenry voted for a new government, the thirst for revenge should be buried forever at last.”[14] As well as calling for the cessation of investigation into perpetrators of state terrorism, it also revives the so-called teoría de los dos demonios or “two-demons theory” in which the violence of leftist “subversives” is equated with that committed by the State, which is justified as a result. Only one example of a resurgent discourse of impunity, the editorial has stoked fears that Macri will block further investigation into the atrocities of the Guerra Sucia. The official story, well, it is still very much being written and rewritten.]

 

Nicolas Poppe (Assistant Professor of Spanish at Middlebury College) is currently working on a monograph on the development of a transnational poetics in early sound film in Argentina, Hollywood en español, and Mexico in the 1930s and early 1940s. His work has appeared in several edited volumes, as well as journals like Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural StudiesCinema Journal, and Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies.

 

Notes

[1] Known as the Guerra Sucia (Dirty War), this period saw the Argentine state wage war on its own people. Even though details (number of victims, periodization, etc.) are of some debate to scholars, tens of thousands of Argentines were disappeared, killed, and tortured. While aid was suspended by the Carter administration, the military dictatorship was strongly supported by the Ford (due in no small part to the influence of Henry Kissinger, his Secretary of State) and Reagan administrations. In fact, mere months into his presidency, Reagan received President-designate Roberto Viola for a private visit in Washington on March 17, 1981.

[2] Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Hollywood’s rather difficult historical relationship with Latin Americans and U.S. Latin@s, the region has since won only one other Oscar in that category: the Argentine film El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes, dir. Juan José Campanella, 2009).

[3] In many ways, I suppose, the feeling of obligation to teach the film is dissipating. Not only due to the critical and commercial success of El secreto de sus ojos, a much easier film to teach students in the U.S. in 2015, but also because so many excellent films on the Guerra Sucia have been released in the past thirty years. Here, it is also useful to point out that Clara Kriger notes in her “La historia oficial/The Official Story” that the film was a hit at the domestic box office, but not quite at the level of Ghostbusters (dir. Ivan Reitman, 1984). In The Cinema of Latin America, eds. Alberto Elena and Marina Díaz López (London: Wallflower Press, 181).

[4] Among these preparations was the destruction of evidence pertaining to human rights violations.

[5] The full description: “ROBERTO: 45 años, Dr. en Ciencias Económicas, su marido.” Bortnik, Aida and Luis Puenzo, 1985, La historia oficial (Buenos Aires: Ediciones de la Urraca, 13).

[6] Original quote: “Todo el país se fue para abajo… ¡Solamente los hijos de puta, los ladrones, los cómplices y el mayor de mis hijos se fueron para arriba!” (Bortnik and Puenzo, 103).

[7] Hands, as we will see, play an important role in the film’s denouement. Also, this was not intended as an allusion to the Blood, Sweat, & Tears song “Spinning Wheel.”

[8] Quoted in Kriger, 182.

[9] Walter Goodman, “La Historia Oficial (1985). Screen: Argentine Love and Loss,” The New York Times (New York), Nov. 8, 1985.

[10] New Argentina Cinema (London: I.B. Taurus, 4).

[11] In Pasado y presente, (Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI Editores, 120). Original quote: “Talking about how history becomes toned down, “Y el hecho de que una película menor ganara el único Oscar obtenido por un film argentino, solamente por el tema que trataba, muestra que esa reducción de la política y la historia al lenguaje de las emociones familiares encontraba un público más allá de las fronteras.”

[12] And by melodrama I mean to appeal to the mode, broadly speaking, as well as the specific ways in which it was practiced in the early-1980s, especially in Argentina.

[13] Somewhat parenthetically, I think it important to note that this perspective seems not only to deny melodrama as a serious narrative mode, something I adamantly believe it is, but in so doing, also rejects its audience (i.e., female viewers).

[14] Original quote: “Un día después de que la ciudadanía votara un nuevo gobierno, las ansias de venganza deben quedar sepultadas de una vez para siempre”

 

One Comment  to  Teaching La Historia Oficial

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for a fascinating explanation of the difficulties of teaching The Official Story and for providing a list of other films to check out. Are you familiar with Gauston Biraben’s 2003 ‘Cautiva.’ When I screened it in my film courses it usually provokes vigorous discussions about state terror and the history of Argentina (and the American role in those years), generally provoked by the devastating portrayal of the interrogation/torture of Sofia’s disappeared mother (in flashbacks). The film almost seems like a response to the much-lauded and criticized earlier film?

    Michael Benton

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