Memories of "The Disappeared": Natalia Bruschtein's Suspended Time

in 30th Guadalajara International Film Festival

by Godfrey Cheshire

While other documentaries have dealt with the horrors Argentina endured four decades ago, when many of its citizens were brutally forced into the ranks of “the disappeared”, Suspended Time (Tiempo Suspendido) has the distinct advantage of viewing that tragedy through the lens of one particularly striking and memorable personality.

Her name is Laura and she is the grandmother of the film’s writer-director, Natalia Bruschtein. An elegant lady with a regal bearing and a commanding voice, Laura survived the Argentine massacres that claimed much of her family because she escaped to Mexico with one of her children decades earlier. Since then, she has fought to tell the story of what happened to those who were lost, so that generations to come will know the truth of their nation’s past.

In a sense, her work can be encapsulated in a single word: memory. It’s something that infuses the care she lavishes on the old documents and photos that comprise her personal archive of the times of terror and before. Through her own story, she intends to preserve the memory of Argentina. Yet, in a haunting paradox, even as she fights to preserve her articulate artifacts, the elderly woman is losing her own memory.

The tales she tells in moments of lucidity, and that we hear elaborated in older interviews, recount a family history that’s remarkable if not at all atypical. Laura and her husband had four children, two boys and two girls. In photos showing the quartet in their teens and early 20s, they look like happy, healthy and close-knit middle-class kids. All grew up to be educated professionals. None were bomb-throwing radicals, but the whole family were committed political activists, and when lethal suppression came to Argentina (beginning even before the outbreak of the “Dirty War” in 1976), that was enough to doom three of Laura’s children.

She recalls her efforts to discover the fate of one daughter. She went to a cemetery where scores of corpses were being shoveled into mass graves. Even then, she seems to know her daughter could not have survived her abduction, as few did, but could she even learn what happened to the girl’s body? She visited a government office to file a report that required her to list the current addresses of herself and her husband (from whom she was separated). She fears this simple action determined what happened one night soon after.

Armed men showed up at her husband’s apartment, destroyed its contents and brutally beat the man himself, calling a “dirty Jew”. Then they killed him. Laura recalls a photo showing that he was shot in the back of the head, the bullet emerging through his left eye. The other half of his face, she notes, seemed strangely untouched.

Such details as this, chilling in their specificity, account for much of Suspended Time’s persuasive and sobering fascination. And then there are Laura’s attitudes toward the events she describes. In a way, her lack of angst, anger and distress seems surprising, but there is perhaps more than one reason for it. In earlier interviews, she has already developed a survivor’s stoic emotional armor; she can recall the horror without being engulfed by it. And later, the slow vanishing of her memory provides a kind of balm, the salve of forgetfulness, so that she seems almost beatific, as if she’s not been scarred at all, as she enjoys the company of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Wisely, Natalie Bruschtein (whose thesis film, Finding Victor, concerned her father) doesn’t try to provide an encompassing overview of the political agonies that beset Argentina in the 1970s. Beautifully crafted, her portrait of her grandmother (who died in 2012), the winner of FIPRESCI’s award at the Guadalajara Film Festival, preserves memories of one family that have powerful lessons for many nations and peoples. The film deserves to be widely seen in festivals and other venues around the world.

[Note: While the Guadalajara catalogue and give the film’s Spanish title as El Tiempo Suspendido, according to the filmmaker the correct title is Tiempo Suspendido.]

Godfrey Cheshire