Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Official Story (La Historia Oficial) -- truth too frightening to ignore

Director: Luis Puenzo, 1985.

Ignorance is bliss. Or so they say, especially those of us living in blissful ignorance and not wanting to change. But ignorance is not bliss if you are supposed to be informed, if you are the teacher.

The Official Story, Argentina's first Academy Award winner (Best Foreign Film, 1986), is centered around Alicia (Norma Aleandro), a mother to 5-year-old Gaby (Analia Castro) and a history teacher in a boys' high school in Buenos Aries. She is happily married to Roberto (Hector Alterio) and has a satisfying middle-class life. Life is good.

But this is 1983 and is at the end of the Argentine junta that was in power. Although this dictatorship had brought stability to the country after its earlier instabilities and dirty wars, things were disintegrating. The standard of living was in decline, corruption was rife, and the country had just lost the Falkland War to the British. Moreover, public revulsion and opposition to the alleged human rights abuses was increasing.

Against this backdrop, her new class of boys is a rabble of teacher-defying troublesome kids. With little rule in the classroom and little respect for her, her teaching becomes stressful and her girlfriends become her respite. Even her husband, a successful lawyer, is too busy to pay her any attention. Still, her friends give her solace and her daughter gives her purpose.

Two events shatter her fragile life and cause her to emerge from her pollyannaish state. First, one of her students challenges her. He asks if she only believes what the history books say. Of course she does, she is a teacher who teaches from these books unquestioningly. She is shocked that he would ask this, but this revolutionary idea takes root in her subconscious to emerge subversively later.

The second event comes from her old friend Ana (Chunchuna Villafane). Returned from exile, she catches up with Alicia and the other bourgeois ladies. But amidst their superficial conversation, Ana brutally and bluntly speaks truth to them. Later, in Alicia's home while sharing some wine Ana reveals her personal history to this history teacher. She had been mercilessly tortured becuase of a past relationship with a person of interest to the regime. Guilt by association, but guilt nonetheless, at least according to those in power. Such notions of illegitimate violation shock Alicia, causing her to naively ask if Ana had reported these. Of course not. How do you report violations to the violators without incurring even worse? Her ignorance was being stretched to breaking point.

But when Ana mentions that many of the women taken into captivity and interrogation were pregnant or mothers of small children, she is getting close to Alicia's heart. She tells her that these children or babies were taken and sold to families who wanted kids. Alicia, herself a barren woman, had resorted to Roberto to arrange an adoption. This revelation from Ana popped her balloon of ignorance. Could Gaby be one of these stolen babies?

Propelled by these events, Alicia begins a journey to the truth. As she attempts to uncover this truth, she discovers levels of political corruption she never dreamed of. Even her husband is involved in ways she finds abhorrent. The taboo subject of Gaby's birth becomes the central mission of her life and one that will change her irrevocably.

The Official Story, though a little dated and slow to get going, highlights the irony of a history teacher not knowing the truth. But it emphasizes the truth that it is the winners of the wars that write the history books. These books are usually slanted to their perspectives. Those who lose rarely have a say in these "official stories". We can see this in the historical accounts of the Native Americans. For years they were portrayed as savages rallying against the liberating and modernizing newcomers, the settlers from the east. The cowboys were the heroes of the movies of the 50s and the indians were the villains. How true is that?

History books that force an inaccurate point-of-view are no more than propaganda. We can understand this in editorials in newspapers, but expect more from academic books. We still see propaganda and this kind of spin-doctoring especially in politics. We are still experiencing the war in Iraq and its effects on the military families and the people in the middle east. Yet who can easily forget the ardent cries excoriating Sadam's abundant weapons of mass destruction. But where are these WMDs? They have never been found. The official story behind the war in Iraq has changed with a change of administration.

In considering the "truths" of history, what we read in the press, what we hear from our political leaders, we must learn to balance our youthful idealism with our aged and tired cynicism. Both ends of this spectrum are dangerous. A practical or pragmatic realism lies somewhere close to center. As followers of Jesus we must submit ourselves to those in authority (Rom. 13:5), for God has ordained civil government (Rom. 13:1). But when this government becomes immoral and corrupt then we must obey God rather than men (Acts 4:19), even if it means civil disobedience.

Reflecting on the tagline of The Official Story's theme, "a truth too frightening to ignore", truth can sometimes be like that. Jesus spoke of love and life, and that is easy to hear though difficult to accept. But he also spoke of eternal death and punishment (Matt. 25:46), a punishment too painful to consider that would last without end (Lk. 16:19-31). Such truth is truly too frightening to ignore. Thankfully, Jesus also provided a way to avoid this inconvenient and frightening truth -- to take his word at face value, to believe him and enter his kingdom. Have you embraced this truth?

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Martin for your insights. I enjoyed the movie but never considered its Christian implication. These reflections gave me such peace, so thank you for your witness to Jesus' message.