Most are in their 80s. They include an optician, a pilot, a teacher, a bank clerk, and a lawyer. Privately, they all suffered the loss of a son, daughter, or, in some cases, two or three children, during the repression of the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. And during this year’s 34th anniversary of the 1976 coup, Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner honored four of them for their human rights work during the past three decades.
Yet they do not wear white headscarves. They do not march in unison at the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday. They are not recognized around the world for their bravery and their relentless campaigning for truth and justice. They are not the grandmothers, the mothers, nor the children of the disappeared. They are the fathers.
On the eve of a March 24 award ceremony for the fathers, people lined up onto the street outside the INCAA cinema in Buenos Aires to see the documentary Padres de la Plaza: 10 recorridos posibles (Fathers of the Plaza: 10 Possible Journeys).
The film gathers the testimony of 10 men whose children were disappeared during the dictatorship for their political activity. “Through the individual stories of each father, we found a collective narrative that tells the story of the magnitude of the genocide,” Joaquín Daglio, the film’s director, tells NACLA.
The director prefers to speak of it as a project rather than just as a film, because about 20 fathers were involved, accompanying the production from start to finish. “With some, we just couldn’t carry on,” Daglio explains. “We would sit down for the interview, they would barely start speaking, and they’d break down and cry and cry and cry. . . . They just found it too painful to put into words what had happened to them.”
The testimonies recorded in the film are harrowing. The tragedy of every detail, every memory, and every anecdote accumulates to produce a portrait of the fathers and their untold story—what happened to them and why they did not organize like other groups did.
Edgardo Mocca, reflecting on the dictatorship in Página/12, virtually the only mainstream Argentine paper that rigorously deals with issues surrounding the human rights abuses of the dictatorship, wrote that “with moral and political authority [the Mothers and Grandmothers] kept the flame of justice and truth alive without ever descending to violence or revenge.”
The Mothers’ avoidance of violence touches on one of the reasons given by Julio Morresi, one of the fathers featured in Padres de la Plaza, as to why there was never a comparable fathers’ group. As he and other fathers in the film recall, the Mothers swiftly filled a political space of protest, and perhaps because the dictatorship’s reaction would have been different had it been a group of men marching, the fathers took a step back. They would watch on from afar, or march behind the Madres, but they never organized.
“We were once at a march, and I could see the police were going over the top,” Morresi says. “I was so angry, I stepped forward to do something. But one of the Mothers saw me and stopped me. She told me to get behind them and keep quiet. It was just as well, because we all know what the police would do back then.”
Daglio adds that those fathers who formed part of the human rights movement in Argentina haven’t been recognized until now, adding that it was this question of “what happened to the fathers?” that pushed him and a number of other colleagues to make the film. “But under the current government and the previous one [of Néstor Kirchner],” Daglio says, “a space has been created in which human rights groups have been able to work and make important advances. There was a necessity to open the space for the fathers to talk. In 2007, the Madres gave the fathers a plaque in recognition of their support . . . but it’s true that if you don’t organize, you are not visible.”
The documentary, four years in the making, forms a moving tapestry of fathers’ testimony. Teobaldo Altamiranda knows that his son, Rubén Omar, was kidnapped between half past three and four o’clock in the afternoon. Mario Belli veered over to the left of the political spectrum because of his disappeared daughter Mariana’s convictions. Rafael Beláustegui lost three children, and approached one of the generals of the junta, Emilio Massera, in a chance meeting on an airplane. “Massera just told me that they were being held and would be released in due course,” Beláustegui says. “What a bastard.”
Jaime Steimberg, who died during the making of the film, had the last bus ticket his son Luis used, found in a bag dropped just as Luis was taken from the street. Mauricio Brodsky remembers the only time he ever slapped his son Fernando—when he returned to Argentina knowing he was in danger. Ricardo Chidíchimo continues to blame himself for his 21-year-old son’s disappearance. “I didn’t find him. I failed.”
Anecdotes, details, gestures, opinions, and experiences vary among the 10 men interviewed for the documentary, but there is one recurrent theme—the never-ending grieving process.
Marcos Weinstein summed up what all the fathers say in the film, when he and three other men were awarded the Azucena Villaflor Prize for their work with human rights organizations on March 24. “We are old,” Weinstein says. “Let us have closure in this mourning that we carry with us. Let us say goodbye.”
Joel Richards is a NACLA Research Associate.