A Past within the Present

Notes from Buenos Aires

In his short story “Funes, His Memory,” Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges describes a man called Funes blessed with perfect memory. The reader, at least, is inclined to think him blessed, at least until Borges shows the darker consequences of a brain filled “like a garbage heap.” Incapable of forgetting the smallest sensation, image, or thought, Funes is crippled by the buzzing confusion of his own mind. The cursed protagonist never stirs from his own bed, unwilling to risk adding new memories to those that he already cannot erase. Borges understood that the ability to forget is at least as important as the ability to remember.

Such is the case, too, with nations, and there is much that Argentina would rather forget. Not even four decades stand between Argentina’s current democracy and a brutal dictatorship that tortured and killed 30,000 of its own citizens. Many of those responsible continue to walk the streets, occasionally appearing for television interviews and protected by blanket pardons offered in the 1990s. “Nobody even expects justice here anymore,” the Argentine novelist Marcos Aguinis wrote, “and it is easier just to forget.”

Ulises de la Orden, an Argentine documentary filmmaker, would rather not forget. In a country struggling to bury the recent past, de la Orden is obsessed with excavating the crimes of the fledgling Argentine nation-state from the midst of the 19th century. His latest film, “Tierra Adentro” (“The Land Within”), focuses on the little-known Desert Conquest of the 1870s, a campaign that extended Argentina’s borders into the depths of South America, uprooting and largely extinguishing entire indigenous tribes in the process.

“Like any good middle-class Argentine,” de la Orden said in a television interview, “I had never met a Mapuche,” the principle tribe targeted during the Desert Conquest. “Everything that has been written about the Mapuche,” he continued, “was written by the victors. So I decided, okay, it’s time to hear the other side of the story.”

But the other side of the story turned out to be well hidden. While the victors of the Desert Conquest—men with storied Argentine names like Roca, Alvear, and Ortega—are memorialized on rearing horses in imposing statues throughout the Argentine capital, the language and culture of the Mapuche have been pushed to the fringe of Argentinean society. Ultimately, “Tierra Adentro” is less concerned with the story of the Desert Conquest itself than with the way in which memory and history collide in 21st-century Argentina. “My goal,” said de la Orden, “is to talk about the past from the perspective of the present. That involves more than just historical archives.”

To that end, the film weaves together several distinct stories. The first is that of Pablo, a teenaged Argentine who begins to explore his Mapuche roots. De la Orden documents Pablo haltingly speaking his first words of Mapuche, learning to wear a traditional Mapuche headdress, and observing a tribal dance. But more interesting are the contradictions that Pablo encounters as he slowly warms to the stigmatized culture of his ancestors.

There is, for example, the jarring contrast between the Argentine history taught in public schools, and the history that Pablo learns from Mapuche activists. Those portrayed as heroes during morning classes are denounced as murderers during evening meetings. A particularly telling scene captures Pablo lingering in front of a statue of an Argentine general on his way home from school, as if understanding for the first time the chasm separating Argentine national memory from Mapuche history. A second strand of the film follows Marcos O’Farrell, a musician and great-grandson of one of the generals who led the Desert Conquest, as he earnestly examines the wrongdoings of his own ancestors.

The film’s most poignant moment comes as O’Farrell visits one of just a few remaining Mapuche villages and explains that he is the descendant of General Racedo. An initial hush of disbelief slowly gives way to an invitation to tea and conversation. While de la Orden never suggests that the horrors of the past can be undone with friendly chitchat, “Tierra Adentro” makes clear that the Mapuche view dialogue and mutual acknowledgment as progress.

The film’s greatest success is that it serves as proof that the past is best met with open eyes and a steady gaze. History can feel like a vast graveyard that we cannot escape, and, like Borges’ Funes, we may be doomed to remember the tragic errors of our ancestors. But in remembering, we find an antidote to future folly, painful as that process may be.

—Columnist Benjamin B. Wilcox can be reached at bwilcox@college.harvard.edu.

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