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New movie explores global complicity in Argentina's 'dirty war'

“I think it’s important to tell this story from a morally ambiguous perspective,” filmmaker Andreas Fontana said of "Azor."
Image: Azor
"Azor" follows a Swiss banker who travels to Buenos Aires in 1980 at the peak of the Argentine military dictatorship’s reign of terror. Courtesy MUBI

The Argentine military dictatorship's reign of terror involved torture and killings, leading to the disappearance of at least 30,000 people. Now 45 years later, the Swiss filmmaker Andreas Fontana takes the tragic Latin American historical events to the big screen to show viewers how different people and countries — including the U.S. and European countries — helped create an international state of terror.

“I think it’s important to tell this story from a morally ambiguous perspective,” Fontana said in a phone interview with NBC News about his first feature film, “Azor,” which releases nationwide at the IFC Center in New York on Friday, Sept. 10. “The story of a Swiss banker who travels to Argentina to replace a missing partner casts a much wider net that represents a system where many different countries took advantage.”

“Azor” is set in 1980 and follows Yvan De Weil (played by Fabrizio Rongione), a private banker from Geneva who travels almost 7,000 miles with his wife, Inés (Stéphanie Cléau) to Buenos Aires at the peak of the Argentinean military dictatorship's abductions and repression.

Viewers will meet the high-net-worth clients of De Weil’s former partner, and penetrate into the tense atmosphere of a society where political indiscretions could end in abrupt disappearances.

“A banker can be both respectable and elegant. But when you look at De Weil’s work, how he conducts business with clients, it can be ambiguous. And if you take into account the violence of the Argentinean dictatorship, then it is no longer ambiguous but completely murky,” Fontana said. 

Just two months after the military seized power in Argentina on March 24, 1976, Argentinean secret police met with counterparts from five other Latin American countries (Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay) to discuss long-term cooperation in a U.S.-backed campaign that targeted communists, socialists and other left-wing supporters, as well as those opposed to military and right-wing governments.

The campaign relied on international collaboration, including the use of encryption machines supplied by a Swiss company owned secretly by the CIA and the German intelligence agency, as well as the French military, which taught and shared torture tactics.

"No one talked about her anymore"

Ioana Padilla, an Argentinean theater actress who plays the daughter of one of the clients in “Azor,” was 9 years old when her mom, Mercedes, was taken by force.

“My memory is unclear if they took her from home, or if she was taken from a bar that she frequented downstairs,” she said in a phone interview. “We were always told to go to bed at 9 p.m. But what I remember clearly is waking up the next day and seeing the apartment in a mess.”

Padilla’s mother disappeared on Aug. 20, 1976. Padilla describes her mom as someone who had a lot of friendships with left-leaning artists and made anti-military comments once at a cocktail at the Argentinean Embassy in the U.S.

But she remembers many people in her family's wealthy social class, the Argentinean elite, supporting the military coup.

Padilla recalls popular slogans in favor of the dictatorship like “Somos derechos y humanos” (“We are right-wing and human”) and “El silencio es salud” (“Silence is health”). 

This last one was particularly poignant because Padilla couldn't talk about her mom.

“The atmosphere was terrible,” she said. “I would hear people say something like, ‘Some flowers have to die for all the weeds to die.’ And you couldn’t really talk because it was dangerous. I went to school the next day [after her mom disappeared] and acted like nothing happened.”

Padilla says that her father tried to find her mother, but he started getting threatening phone calls. So her family stopped talking about her.

Image: Azor
A scene from Swiss filmmaker Andreas Fontana’s "Azor." Courtesy MUBI

“When someone asked about my mom, I would say that she was on a trip to New York,” she said. “We told my younger brothers, who were 3 and 4 at the time, that mom had an accident in the United States and she was hospitalized. Her return kept getting delayed and delayed until no one talked about her anymore.” 

Padilla's family also endured threats from different political sides. She says her paternal grandfather, a banker, narrowly escaped a bomb that was planted beneath his desk, possibly by a left-wing militant group.

“Regrettably, there are flags that are claimed by the left or the right. And they appropriate those issues. It shouldn’t be that way. Human rights are human rights. And they should be for everyone,” she said.

Violence "as a legitimate political strategy"

Mariana Heredia, an Argentinean sociologist who is an expert on the dictatorship, says that the military government kept itself in power by promoting the idea that violence is justified as a political strategy.

However, she points out, this idea was commonplace with other Latin American governments and both right- and left-wing militants.

“The dictatorships of the 1970s were preceded by the trivialization of violence as a legitimate political strategy,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s difficult to understand what the military did in the region if one does not also consider that during previous years violence had become acceptable.”

Heredia explained that on one hand, power was being seized unconstitutionally by the military. And on the other hand, insurrectionary movements also adopted violence as a reaction to the oppression or the excesses of those governments. These perspectives, she concluded, legitimized violence on both sides of the political spectrum.

The acceptance of violence ultimately created a national security doctrine that called on the military to not only fight external enemies, but also identify and fight the ones inside the country, Heredia said.

From this perspective, the military coup was supported by the false idea that it could re-establish order and also respect the law. But, Heredia says, it militarized politics instead to attack social movements and this reached levels of violence that had never been seen in the region before.

“There was absolute consensus among the military elites in Argentina to take on a dirty war,” she said. “That internal enemy had to be annihilated. And therefore, it was not necessary to economize on resources, even when they were extreme, to eradicate it.”

To this day, Heredia says that a large part of the military elites from those years still maintain that they emerged victorious from war.

“There was for quite some time within the Latin American elites, let’s say the military and their closest allies, an agreement on the need for repressive violence,” she said.

A quest for justice advances human rights

Sévane Garibian, an international criminal and transitional justice law expert based in Switzerland, says that political movements in Argentinean society that bring visibility to the disappeared have become a model for human rights advocates all over the world.

“Because of this political movement during the Cold War in the 1980s and 1990s, we see a very deep revolution in the field of international human rights,” Garibian said in a phone interview. “Specifically, the 'dirty war' in Argentina, and more generally Operation Condor, contributed to a turn in international human rights law.”

"Dirty war" refers to the disappearances, killings and other violence in Argentina during the 1976-83 military dictatorship. Operation Condor is a program run by the military dictatorships of Argentina and five other South American countries in the mid-1970s to brutally repress dissent.

Garibian explained that in the aftermath, nongovernmental organizations and political movements approached human rights in different ways. 

The use of DNA testing in the search for victims' remains, now seen all over the world, is due in part to Latin America and to Argentina specifically, Garibian said. “So starting in the beginning of the 1990s, the systematic use of DNA testing created a new paradigm in the fields of science and international law.” 

She pointed out that other countries seeking justice for victims in Argentina applied the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows them to try unresolved war crimes or crimes against humanity that happened outside of their borders.

“In Spain, through the use of universal jurisdiction, former Argentinean naval officer Adolfo Scilingo was condemned for crimes against humanity that were committed in Argentina,” she said. “Scilingo was directly involved in los vuelos de la muerte [death flights], where the military systematically threw victims unconsciously into the Río de la Plata. Spain is a starting point for the use of universal jurisdiction for the judgement of mass criminals.”

While the politics of Argentina's Dirty War and Operation Condor compelled different countries to seek justice for victims outside of their borders, human rights can also be like a double-sided mirror, Garibian said, prompting countries to examine their own involvement in mass crimes around the world. 

“Neutrality does not make Switzerland exempt. I believe we are now in a key moment where more and more studies will be put together about the involvement of Switzerland in mass crimes around the world,” she said. “So within the field of academia, this is not a taboo. And many colleagues have started opening a door to discuss Switzerland’s indirect involvement as a country in different past events including colonialism.”

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