In my previous post, on the Argentine film El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes, Juan José Campanella 2009), I made some criticisms on a review of the film written by Matt Losada for the journal Cineaste. I was very glad to find out that Mr Losada read my entry and published his own response in this website. The film has been hotly debated in Argentina and I believe it is a good thing that the polemic has now transcended the national boundaries of Argentine-based newspapers and websites and reached Anglophone media. It is my belief that debates are usually enriching and here I would like to continue with our exchange of opinions, not as an attempt at having the last word on the issue (Mr Losada is invited to contribute as many texts as he likes for this website) but because I think this discussion is important and necessary. Several key issues on postcolonial cultures and politics are involved here. I do not intend to repeat myself or to methodically reply to each point that Losada raises, but I do take issue with some of his patronising accusations about my views on Argentine justice and on the Oscars. My objective is not to pursue a personal contest with my interlocutor but to clarify some notions on Argentine recent history and contemporary politics, notions which are extremely important and which underlie all discussions on Campanella’s film.
Before I develop any arguments, I would like to start by making some positive observations on Mr Losada’s views, lest I give the impression I only want to express disapproval here. This is by no means the case: I am thankful to him for his willingness to participate in this debate and I agree with some of his points, such as his support for the artistically committed film Historias Extraordinarias (Extraordinary Stories, Mariano Llinás 2009). Mr Losada also argues that Anglophone analysts of Latin American culture may enjoy a critical distance helpful to overcome potential biases, and I completely agree with him on this point. In fact, on several occasions I have benefited from this critical distance through foreign friends and colleagues who offered their views on a number of Latin American issues. Therefore, it is by no means my intention to discredit Losada’s opinions on account of his nationality or background.
Having clarified the above, I will proceed to the actual discussion. This is not so much about our individual views on the film – whether it is more or less graphic in its depiction of violence, or more or less centred on action and spectacle, are issues that depend on personal viewpoints and may not be resolved in a debate – but about the film’s social and political context. In my post I mentioned that, in his review of El secreto, Mr Losada missed some crucial facts about Argentine history during the 1970s –particularly in relation to the 1976-1983 dictatorship and its aftermath. Losada has contested my proposition but his answer, I am afraid to say, mostly confirms my original impression. My first point refers to what I considered a misunderstanding on the part of Losada about the historical period in which El Secreto is set. In my post I critiqued Losada’s Cineaste review, pointing out that the film is not centred on the military junta’s Dirty War, as he mentioned, since the story takes place in 1974 and 1975 – that is to say, during the democratically elected government of Isabel Perón and before the junta’s rise to power on March 24 1976. Losada replied that this is not what he originally meant, and that I arrived at this conclusion by de-contextualizing and misquoting his text – particularly one sentence which, if cited in full, reads: “Why apply such a nullifying finish to a film centered on a graphic account of such an important episode in the nation’s history—the military junta’s ‘Dirty War’—one that continues to resound in the national political discourse some thirty years later with the recent prosecutions of agents of state violence during the dictatorship.”[i] To me, quoted in full, Losada’s sentence still gives the same impression: that the film is focused on the military junta’s Dirty War, which, moreover, is portrayed graphically. But I must insist here that the references to the military junta and the Dirty War are always subtextual and never graphic (which is not to say the violence in the film is not graphic, or that the film is not indirectly discussing the dictatorship).
Losada has subsequently offered a clarification of what he originally meant. I will cite the explanation in full to avoid further misunderstandings. Losada writes: “This selection [my citations of his text] distorts my point that the film is centered on—not necessarily set in—the episode of the dictatorship and the related state violence, which indeed runs from the Isabel Perón period until, arguably, the present, in cases like that of the 2006 disappearance of Jorge Julio López during a trial in which he was testifying as a prime witness against a since-convicted torturer from the dictatorship period”. I accept Losada’s point that he did not intend to say El secreto is set during the dictatorship (although this is the impression I had from his original review, rather than the outcome of a deliberate decontextualisation). I cannot accept, however, the new typology of Argentine historical periods Losada proposes here, which is at best questionable. First, the episode of the dictatorship does not run from the government of Isabel Perón, it runs from the moment of the junta’s rise to power after the coup d’état in March 1976. It is of course true that there are certain practices that can be traced back from the dictatorship to the Perón government, and that the roots and causes of the military coup did not emerge from one day to the next. However, as disastrous as the Isabel Perón government was, it still cannot be equated to the subsequent dictatorship. And why would the episode of the Dirty War start with Isabel Perón and not, for example, with the repressive Onganía regime? History is marked by continuities and disruptions, and sometimes the demarcation of periods cannot be absolutely accurate, but here we are talking about two different governments with a clear division between them due to a military coup. Even harder to sustain is, I believe, the claim that the “episode of the dictatorship and state violence” runs until the present. This is simply not the case. There have been now in Argentina nearly three decades of uninterrupted democratic governments. By all means these governments have been far from perfect, and often marked by economic crises, corruption scandals, and so on. There have even been, indeed, some episodes of state violence, mostly associated with police repression in public protests and mobilizations. But these have been isolated cases which, tragic as they have been, cannot be placed at the same level than the systematic detention, torture, and assassination practices carried out with the full support of the state apparatus in the late 70s and early 80s. It is undeniable that the trauma and the violence of the dictatorship continue to have an impact in present Argentine society, something that is reflected in its cultural production, from literature to film to music. But this does not mean the dictatorship runs until the present, however metaphorically Losada intends his words to be meant.
Ultimately, it may be pointed out that the above is a discussion of historical interest only, but it is one that is crucial for the interpretation of the film. Going back to the area of postcolonial politics and film criticism, I do want to take issue, as mentioned, with Losada’s treatment of my opinions on two topics: the prosecution of the dictators and the Oscar award received by El secreto. The first point regards the convoluted and complicated process of bringing to justice those who were responsible for the crimes of the dictatorship in Argentina. In my previous post I mentioned that, while there is much to be criticised on this respect, one must still recognise the important progress that has been made in convicting the members of the junta, since Argentina is the only country in Latin America where a thorough review of the de facto government of the 1970s/80s was made. Losada dismisses my point thus: “Paz chooses, however, to favorably compare Argentina with those neighboring countries that prosecuted no one at all. I can only offer my opinion that he is setting quite a low standard for justice.”[ii] As an example of effective use of sarcasm, the phrase is pertinent and intelligent. As a political reflexion, however, it is rather simplistic and even naive. To put it simply, I am not choosing a low standard of justice but situating the Argentine case within its proper socio-political context to be able to understand it from the more nuanced, less-biased perspective that Losada advocates. Needless to say, in an ideal scenario all countries in the region would have prosecuted and indicted those responsible for crimes against humanity. But in politics, as Saint-Simon reminded us, what is ideal may often be in opposition to what is good.
I am in absolute disagreement with the “indulto”, the general pardon for the convicted dictators issued in the early 1990s (I participated in protests against it in Buenos Aires at the time). I do not approve of the Alfonsín laws of “punto final” and “obediencia debida” – although the story of these laws should be analysed in more detail, once again carefully assessing the context in which they were passed: the early stages of the return to democracy after more than six years of dictatorship, when the de jure government was still weak and seriously threatened by the still-powerful military in a country with a long history of coup d’états. Despite all this, considered in its wider geo-political context, the Argentine case is indeed noteworthy, even when allowing for its shortcomings. The main leaders of the dictatorship were prosecuted and convicted almost immediately after the return of democracy, when the military was still powerful and many sectors in the civil society were still sceptical about the new government. Can anyone imagine the same thing happening in Chile, for example, were the crimes of the past have only just begun to be revisited? Even in a “First World” country such as Spain there were no general prosecutions after the Franco regime. Hence, it is in this sense that I believe the Argentine case is exceptional. This is not a nationalistic opinion, or the setting of a low standard for justice, but a measured appraisal of a political event understood in its relevant context. Even the general pardon issued in the 1990s was later overruled, and over the past years most of the junta members, its officers and enforcers have had to stand new trials for their crimes. By comparing the Argentina with its neighbours one can have a better idea about how complex and difficult a process it is for societies to come to terms with de facto governments and to achieve some level of justice after the return to constitutional regimes.
The second issue that Losada raises (perhaps the most serious one in terms of personal criticism) is the accusation that I allow myself to be seduced by the Oscars and what they represent. I will quote Losada’s remark in full: “Paz argues that in awarding the Oscar to an Argentine film, the AMPAS ‘decided to suspend its Eurocentric standards to recognize a film from Latin America,’ and argues that this ‘should perhaps be seen in a more positive light.’ I hope I am not the only reader to see the irony of a critic expressing such an opinion in a ‘postcolonial’ forum. I personally hope for a great level of self-reflexivity in a truly postcolonial Latin American critic, one for whom the rather colonial symbolic value represented by the Oscar statue would be less seductive.”[iii]
Losada’s comment is not only misguided but deeply patronising. It gives the impression that, enthralled by the aura of Hollywood and the golden glow of the Oscar, I fall for an obvious colonial trap. Such statement is patronising because it assumes the critic can only reject the Oscars as a colonial symbol or embrace it in blindly hegemonic fashion, uncritically succumbing before its glow. But perhaps a more nuanced alternative is possible – one in which the Oscar does not merely stand for a modern version of the glass beads, mirrors and trinkets that blind the primitive Latin American subjects. Such an alternative, for example, would contemplate the fact that the Oscar is an excellent tool of promotion – one that significantly increases the chances of a film being distributed globally in cinemas outside the festival circuits. Exhibitors who would not think of screening a certain film may reconsider their decisions if that film was to be awarded an Oscar. Losada should know how difficult it is for films made in South America to be released in the US and Europe (to mention only western societies). Having won an Oscar, the chances of a Latin American film such as El secreto to be distributed in foreign markets (particularly those which are not Spanish-speaking ones) would increase significantly. This would represent an opportunity for foreign audiences to approach an example of Latin American culture. This, to me, is a positive thing, regardless of one’s personal opinion about the film (in the specific case of El secreto it should be noted I am far from the being the only person to find good things to say about about the film; many critics, better-known and better qualified than myself, have also done so). In fact, we probably wouldn’t be discussing El secreto here had it not been because of the Oscar.
Certainly, the Bafici festival in Buenos Aires is a great event for independent cinema. Personally, I may be more interested in the films screened at this festival than in those competing for Oscars. But winning the Bafici would not have the same effects in the terms described above. Here, then, is where the major flaw in Losada’s argument lies: the ‘colonial’ symbol of the Oscar may, paradoxically, allow an Argentine film to be screened in markets that usually ignore the cinema of this country (something that would apply to any other Latin American production of course). There is no irony here, for as so many postcolonial scholars have demonstrated, the relationship between core and peripheral nations is not only a binary and schematic one, in which symbolic and material interchanges flow exclusively in a one-way direction from the centre to the colonies. In a postcolonial and globalised world order, relationships and articulations in the field of cultural production are more diffuse, nuanced, and hybrid. Postcolonial societies can appropriate the symbols of core countries and reinterpret them according to their own knowledges, practices and necessities. Moreover, the meaning of one particular symbol in the US or Europe will not necessary be the same in South America or Africa. Losada should allow for the possibility that the inhabitants of a peripheral nation may be something other than naive when it comes to understanding the symbols produced in core nations. In fact, Losada might consider being less patronising in his perception of Argentina’s “present and future filmgoing public”: perhaps the film was well-received by Argentineans not because they mindlessly fell for an imitation of empty Hollywood aesthetics but because they found the film had something interesting to say about Argentine society and history.
[i] Losada, Matt; “The Secret in Their Eyes: Historical Memory, Production Models, and the Foreign Film Oscar”, Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, 2010.
[ii] Losada, Matt; “A Response to Mariano Paz’ ‘Memory, History, Forgetting…” Postcolonial Networks. 20 May 2011.