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LOS ANGELES LATINO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

A dark chapter in Argentina's history

'Our Disappeared' takes a haunting, disturbing look at the era when a military junta was in control.

September 12, 2008|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

There's no body of written evidence, no realpolitik smoking gun, to directly connect Henry Kissinger with Ines Kuperschmit.

But the former U.S. foreign policy mastermind and the Argentine-born Los Angeles attorney both play intertwined, supporting roles in Juan Mandelbaum's haunting and disturbing documentary "Our Disappeared" (Nuestros Desaparecidos), one of 132 films that will be screened during the 12th annual Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, which starts tonight.

Kissinger, who was secretary of State at the time, appears very briefly in "Our Disappeared" in a late-1970s Buenos Aires television news clip, declaring U.S. support for Jorge Rafael Videla, head of the brutal right-wing military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 until 1983. Although several of the military leaders were put on trial after democracy was restored, those years remain a dark chapter in the nation's history that many Argentines still refuse to confront.

"The task of remembering is not easy," said Mandelbaum, who has lived in the United States for decades and owns a documentary production company in Boston. "I think countries are more tempted to leave things behind than dealing with them."

Although Kuperschmit's personal story is only one of those recounted in the movie, it's as unsettling and emblematic as any other.

Born in 1975, Kuperschmit was only an infant when the coup took place. But her parents, both members of the radical left-wing Montoneros group, were among thousands of Argentine students, trade unionists, opposition politicians and others who were rounded up by the military and "disappeared," a euphemism for torture and murder.

When Kuperschmit's mother saw government agents approaching her while strolling with Ines through the Buenos Aires zoo, she instantly abandoned her daughter and walked straight toward the agents so that Ines wouldn't be "disappeared" along with her. An elderly couple later found the baby girl lying on the grass and crying.

Although the aunt who adopted her never talked about what happened, Kuperschmit said that even as a child she guessed the truth.

"I was never tortured, I was never detained, I don't know what it's like to have a cold gun against my head," she said, switching between Spanish and English during an interview at her midcity Los Angeles home. "But I have the consciousness."

Kuperschmit was one of numerous Argentine children who were orphaned when their parents were arrested during the "Dirty War." She was raised by relatives in Virginia before eventually settling in Southern California.

Now a U.S. citizen and director of legal services for the Learning Rights Law Center, where she provides counsel to families of foster and delinquent youth, Kuperschmit said that when she was growing up stateside, most American acquaintances didn't know where Argentina was; some thought it was part of Europe.

That changed a bit after the movie musical "Evita," starring Madonna, came out, Kuperschmit said with a laugh. But in politically stable countries such as the United States, she observes, "People have the luxury of not knowing what's going on."

Kuperschmit's personal twist of fate underscores the significant, if at times subterranean, ways in which Latin America is politically linked to its powerful northern neighbor. In parallel fashion, movies such as "Our Disappeared" and others in the film festival illustrate the proliferating cultural links between Los Angeles and the rest of the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking hemisphere.

Since its inception, the festival, which is co-sponsored by The Times, has been drawing a larger share of non-Spanish-speaking audiences, reflecting the surging quality of Latin American and Latino movies, says Edward James Olmos, co-founder of the festival with Marlene Dermer and the late George Hernandez.

"I'll tell you right now," Olmos said, the "first-time directors coming out of Latin America are much stronger than the first-time directors coming out of the United States of America."

"Our Disappeared," which will be screened Tuesday and Thursday, is one of several festival movies that offer a highly personalized take on political and social themes. Mandelbaum says the project took wing a few years ago when he made contact with the family of his former girlfriend, who was among the coup's victims. He started tracking down other missing friends, and the idea for a documentary gradually took shape. "I just felt a very big responsibility toward the story," he said.

While the documentary's sympathies clearly reside with his leftist friends, Mandelbaum said he wanted the movie to fairly depict the violent acts that were committed by both sides.

"In a sense, the dreams were defeated, but the dreams weren't the wrong dreams," Mandelbaum said. "It was the methods, perhaps, that were wrong."

Even though the political circumstances may seem far removed to most U.S. viewers, Mandelbaum hopes that his movie will prompt audiences here to reflect on possible parallels between what happened in Argentina three decades ago and what's happening in the world today. He and Kuperschmit agree that it's possible even for stable democracies to suffer sudden dramatic reversals in human rights.

It's hard for Kuperschmit to think about the role of the U.S. government in eroding human rights in her homeland. "Nevertheless," she said, "I still believe in the American dream. And I would rather be a part of this government and try to change it from within than sit on the sideline and criticize."

--

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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