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Thursday, September 19, 2013

The bloody truth: forensics rebuilding identities

Clyde Collins Snow supervises forensic work.
Clyde Collins Snow supervises forensic work.
By Pablo Suarez

Buscadores de identidades robadas delves into the aftermath of the dictatorship

“Our goal is to inform. We want young people to know our history and the elders to remember it: this way, we will surely raise awareness. This is a didactic documentary. We’ve wanted to tell this story for a long time”, says Argentine documentary maker Miguel Rodríguez Arias about his film Buscadores de identidades robadas (Seekers of Stolen Identities), which accounts for the origin and development of the Argentine Team of Forensic Anthropology (Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense – EAAF) which since 1984 has found and identified the remains of 577 persons disappeared during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship. So far, no other feature, neither fiction film nor documentary, has told the story Miguel Rodríguez Arias is now telling with remarkable precision.

Buscadores de identidades robadas begins back in 1982 when the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo were trying to find a method to identify their grandchildren who had been kidnapped during the dictatorship. If these children could be identified, then eventually they could be returned to their real families. Initially, there were no scientific methods available to verify blood ties between grandparents and grandchildren.

But in 1983 there were two events to be celebrated. On the one hand, the advent of the much sought-after democracy with President Raúl Alfonsín, from the Radical Party, as the new president. On the other, scientists from the US announced that a method to potentially establish the identity of disappeared persons had been discovered.

Following a request from the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, Raúl Alfonsín brought in US forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow, an expert in identifying corpses in criminal cases.

Upon his arrival in Argentina in 1984, Snow and local anthropologists founded the Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense. From the start, the results proved to be fruitful. It so happens that their first identifications of disappeared persons became essential pieces of evidence against the military juntas in the trials carried out in 1985, in which Snow himself testified.

The entire process the EAAF is involved in consists of three major steps: a) the preliminary investigation of the case, b) the archeological exhumation of the remains, and c) the anthropologic and genetic analyses in order to identify the remains and provide elements needed to establish the cause of death. Furthermore, a major turning point was reached about eleven years ago when it became possible to get a sample of DNA from the bone remains, and thus it could be matched with the DNA from relatives of the disappeared.

Ever since, the EAAF (a non-governmental organization that runs on state funds since 2009) has identified 577 persons out of remains belonging to 1,200 people. Such hard, valuable work has, in fact, gone beyond the frontiers of Argentina and was taken as a model and replicated in more than forty foreign countries.

Buscadores de identidades robadas tells this story in a detailed and most meticulous fashion. Every single aspect of the processes undertaken by the EAAF is explained and shown to perfectly inform viewers of some essential realities our present needs in order to keep memory alive. Different interviewees talk about their work and how they feel about their tremendous and priceless task. They talk about the state of things at the very beginning, back in the early 80s, about how things have slowly changed for the better, and about the meaning of their work.

Fortunately, what you get is not only information and cold statistics or technical details regarding the many stages of the process, but you can also appreciate the film’s humanistic gaze, its contemplative tone, the respect toward its material as well as the many uneasy questions and thought-provoking queries posed throughout the narrative.

Fittingly enough, there’s the much-interesting archive footage (of the trials, newsreels, exhumations) and some recordings of the dictators’ most infamous words — uttered at public events.

A potential problem a documentary with so much information can always have is to become tedious, repetitive or plainly confusing. None of that happens in Rodríguez Arias’ film: it is swiftly edited, very well narrated and it boasts the right tempo for all its contents to slowly sink into your conscience.

For a didactic documentary, it’s as good as it gets. And while this is a film that never goes for a melodramatic approach (which would have been downright insulting and manipulative), it still is a work that conveys deep sentiment and stirs emotion. More than anything else, Buscadores de identidades robadas is a film about people, dignity and identity.

@pablsuarez

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