‘The Silence of Others’ review: When transitional justice feels like waiting for pigs to fly

Minor spoilers ahead

Silence can be the most terrifying thing in the world. But what does it really entail? For Maria Martín, a small woman in her frail age, it means waiting for pigs to fly before she can get hold of her mother’s remains and lay them to rest. For José Galante, it means spending each waking day in the same neighborhood where his torturer lives and roams freely. They are only two of the thousands of victims of the Franco dictatorship, whose crimes remain unaccounted for and absolved by Spain’s amnesty law, leaving the victims without any reparations.

Chronicling a lawsuit filed in Argentina based on the principle of universal jurisdiction, The Silence of Others depicts a harrowing picture of a post-Franco Spain that is marred by historical amnesia and blatant disregard for human rights violations. Directors Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar mix talking-head interviews with footage of mass protests and Franco-era crimes to craft an incisive portrait of the struggles of its principal subjects. Impressive are the times when the filmmakers manage to capture the subjects in their moments of silence and, by enhancing such moments through simple close-up shots, extract something poetic out of them. The presence of a narrator, often accompanied by motific shots of sculptures carved in remembrance of Franco’s victims, also aids the film in setting its pace and in building tension.

Aside from the melodrama that arises from the legal battle, what is more striking in the documentary is how the “Pact of Forgetting,” much like in many Latin American countries, succeeds in promoting impunity and erasure of the past in the guise of national healing. We see how Franco’s crimes against humanity are never taught in schools, how parents refuse to educate their children, and how the country continues to revere the dictator and his cohorts by naming roads, streets, and landmarks after them, as though adding insult to the victims’ injury.

This evocation is so vivid that I cannot help but notice its parallelism to the Philippines’ historical denialism about the atrocities of the martial law period, especially at a time when another Marcos is eager to occupy the country’s highest office. Just as the pro-Franco Spanish government articulates its “forgetting for all, by all” sentiment, Marcos apologists continue to tell martial law victims to leave the brutal Marcosian years behind and move on. But how can one move on when transitional justice remains elusive? 

Shot over six years, the documentary also reflects the patience and journalistic tenacity of its creators. The production time itself conveys how difficult, if not impossible, it is to bring the crimes of the state to justice. In a sense, The Silence of Others shows how the process of filmmaking, like any form of artistic pursuit, can offer a way to gain empathy for the people and stories a filmmaker hopes to bring to the fore. Only serious documentarists understand this.

By unearthing the mass grave of Spain’s violent past, The Silence of Others illustrates how establishing truth commissions and historical memory through education remains paramount in any attempts at national reconciliation, for there are wounds that time simply cannot heal. Until today, Spain’s amnesty law remains intact, so the documentary’s culmination reminds us that the fight against historical erasure will always be a collective and protracted struggle. Beyond introspection, the film calls for action: to never sit still amidst acts of injustice and to be voices of dissent at a time when our rights and liberties are being trampled upon.

In one of his essays in The Philippines is Not a Small Country, Gideon Lasco argues that “only with a proper sense of history can a nation move from the tragedies of its past and pursue a better future.” How fitting these words are. 

The Silence of Others premiered at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival in Feb. 2018 and was recently re-screened in the Philippines for free from April 15-17, 2022, as part of the Dokyu Power Film Festival.

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