Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. Directed by Lourdes Portillo and Susana Blaustein. New York: Women Make Movies, 1985. 63 minutes.
Survival, Strength, Sisterhood: Power of Women in Downtown Eastside. Directed by Alejandro Zuluaga and Harsha Walia. Vancouver: Downtown Eastside Power of Women Group, 2011. 34 minutes.
Bones of Contention. Directed by Andrea Weiss. Brooklyn: Icarus Films, 2017. 75 minutes.
What does it mean to navigate a history that haunts both a local and global Historical Present?
What does it mean for a government to be complicit with the persistent erasure of its citizens?
How can one focus on the future if one does not contend with the literal and metaphorical unmarked graves of the past?
How does one engage with transgenerational memories of genocide and its manifestations not only in how one’s body is treated within a society but also within a sense of self-worth and belonging?
What does it mean to be marginalized, confined, and vulnerable to acts of elimination, silencing, and ghosthood?
What happens when the living do not accept how the missing became disappeared, and they gather en masse in pursuit of justice?
How does one create rituals of retrieval and un-forgetting of the dead, the disappeared, and the banished?
These three films have extreme graphic images and/or content that requires space between viewings and extra time to absorb the unflinching realities that they all present. As a viewer, one comes face to face with how a government can shift in power and deny human rights to its citizens by carrying out massive forms of erasure and terror and leaving an insistence of historical amnesia in its wake. A thread that flows through all three films is accountability and camaraderie amongst those who promise to never forget, those who challenge convergent truths and point to the dangers within historical forgetting. Each film features the names and photographs of thousands of people who have been disappeared via murder and unknown circumstances because of homophobic political regimes, gentrification, addiction, and systematic racism. Each film shows communities of survivors who band together to lead processions in the street in order to bring awareness and shift the hearts and minds of those who would rather forget. They use their living bodies to march for the ones that are no longer here to speak for themselves.
In Survival, Strength, Sisterhood, First Nations women from the Downtown Eastside area in Vancouver, Canada, advocate for themselves and raise the ghosts of their loved ones/friends, urging viewers to see their collective humanity and for the area to be unghosted and acknowledged. This film focuses on the heartfelt testimonies of women who live in the area and have created a rich community together as survivors of severe assaults against indigenous women who face persistent violence and murder that stems from far more than the settler colonialism through which Canada came to be. Viewers follow the route of the annual Women’s Memorial March, started in 1991 after a woman was found murdered at an intersection in this part of the city. One of the longest running marches in Canadian history, it makes a procession to all the spots where women endured instances of extreme violence and where the marchers do smudging ceremonies and make offerings of prayers for their spirits. The film highlights the systemic culprits that have led women to resort to sex work in the face of homelessness, open drug trading, and a visible survival sex trade.1
The poetry of Federico García Lorca weaves throughout the film Bones of Contention, functioning like a literal fabric of the past that is still present, including Lorca’s own murder via firing squad and burial in a mass grave that is believed to hold 2,000 people.2 Estimates indicate that during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and years thereafter 120,000 people were buried in unmarked graves. Survivors of the Franco regime who were tortured for being LGBTQ+ by the Falange Party recount their memories: so many murdered and/or sent to prison indefinitely where they endured rape and other atrocities. The film also reveals glaring ironies and betrayals that are undeniable in terms of detailing what happened, such as the planting of pine trees with aggressive root systems to destroy the evidence of mass graves. The presence of these trees is seemingly benign until one knows the truth. A map of unmarked graves throughout the country looks like it is bullet riddled within itself. But the film does not live only in the past. As with Survival, Strength, Sisterhood, we see activists calling for justice. They chant ¡Ni olvidar ni perdonar, verdad, justicia, reparto! Sin memoria no puede haber democracia! (Neither forget nor forgive, truth, justice, repartition! Without memory there can be no democracy!), which rings out long after watching.3
In Los Madres mothers and grandmothers demand information about their murdered children. They clamor to be heard, seen, felt, and not ignored. We witness in the first scene their passionate cries for justice as they walk furiously, circling the Plaza de Mayo, a popular square in Buenos Aires. They wear white headscarves, some adorned with the names of the disappeared. Viewers travel between their pleas and footage about the military-led dictatorship that disappeared 30,000 women, men, and children during the Dirty War in Argentina (1976-83).4 We learn that America supplied weapons and trainings to eliminate people who were deemed “subversives.” We learn that pregnant women were forced to give birth in prisons; after they were murdered their babies were given to the military families responsible for their deaths. We learn about the torturing of parents who protested. And we learn that Argentina won the 1978 FIFA World Cup series in the midst of continued killings and disappearances, in which the World Cup provided a distraction and cover-up for the injustices. The primary focus, though, is the women who banded together, facing the prospect of death for speaking out, taking care of orphaned children, putting pressure on the government for punishing the perpetrators, and inspiring worldwide movements against erasure. Therefore, situating individuals’ activism within a national and historical context, this film highlights the power of a mother’s love to seek justice for her children through life and death.
1 Amanda Coletta, “Canada’s Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Gets a Failing Grade,” Washington Post, May 12, 2018, and Alicia Ault, “These Haunting Red Dresses Memorialize Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women,” Smithsonian, March 19, 2019.
2 Arturo Conde, “Federico García Lorca: LGBTQ Hero 117 Years after His Birth,” NBC News, June 5, 2015.
3 This particular film is more graphic than the others; the bodies of children, women, and men are shown as well as footage of the bodies of actual murdered people being exhumed.
4 Erin Blakemore, “30,000 People Were ‘Disappeared’ in Argentina’s Dirty War. These Mothers Never Stopped Looking.” History.com, March 7, 2019.