After dictatorship in Argentina (1976-83) and Chile (1973-1990). Visual representations of collective experiences: documentaries, comics and shortfilms on

The history of Latin America is full of mysteries and unspoken tragedies. This continent suffered by the dictatorships, by unstable governments or by military juntas. The most visible fact of analysing the history of this region is that tragedies affected the simple families, whose members were murdered in unclear circumstances. Till today, only a small part of the victims of so called „Dirty War” (1976-83) is identified. Till today, mothers of those, who are disappeared (esp. ‚desaparecidos’), gather every Thursday on Plaza de Mayo to demonstrate, to show, that they remember. The same activity, nevertheless the time that passed from the coup d’etat, appears in Chile, where the members of AFI (Asociacion de Fotografos Indepediente) go along the streets with their photos.

Photo by gotto78 (CC)

In this article I would try to discuss the way in which the tragic events in Argentina and Chile are remembered by the society and how visual materials occurring in the Internet, as well in the public sphere (memory parcs, ‚muro de la memoria’, museums), could reinforce the collective experience of the contemporary history. I will show, how satirical editions in Argentina, emphasized the situation and portrayed the dictatorship and how the young documentary filmmakers commemorate the years of regime and build collective memory by film. But first of all, I would describe a theoretic background of my essay, by focusing on what is semiotics and why it is useful to view collective memory via this filter, especially, when we analyse the visual material.

Semiotics is a relation between sign, object and the interpreter. This relation, according to Magnussen [1] who cites Peirce’s theory, should be iconic or symbolic and not necessarily occurs in the language. It may be successfully a sign which refers to object in the sense of resemblance or life practice and cultural habits. Historic analysis often gets benefit from semiotics in Peirce’s or Eco’s theory, because materials deposed in museums mostly contain of visual materials. The private history, closed in family archives, as so called living history, are visual souvenirs of the time: a photo, a letter and correspondence between the members of family, the paintings, the films, or some objects ‚from the era’. It is significant, that the objects are permanently interpreted and by the process of memorization, are creating the new signs. So the new sign providing the new interpretation, may be perceived as a mutation or a product of recycled history and the ‚old’ signs. Sign in this sense, become independent of its interpreter and indicates not him, but the time and the historic moment. Although its meaning changes and reinforce or deteriorate in the eyes of the next generations and their collective experience and collective memory.

Collective memory is a sort of product of memorising and of collected experiences. As Iwona Irwin-Zarecka claims in her important publication [2]: „A ‚collective memory’ is a set of ideas, images, feelings about the past and it is best located not in the minds of individuals, but in the resources they share. There is no reason to privilege one form of resource over another – for example, to see history books as important but popular movies as not.” In our analysis – the history of dictatorship in Chile and in Argentina, the main role in commemorating play the photos and documentaries, set by amateur filmmakers on and documentaries done by sons of the witnesses of „Dirty War” years. If we add, that collective memory may also be „an active process of sense-making through time”, like it is defined by Olick and Levy in their article [3], the semiotics framework of collective mean-making will be clear.

Part 1: Argentina: forced disappearing

The sense-making, like I wrote in previous paragraph, is in this way reinforced by visual materials, ‚signs’ of the time. It can be also the remedy for sharp reality and a sort of passive resistance for terror. And to the landscape of Argentinian and Chilean belonged: in Argentinian case about 340 detention centers – unofficial prison system that wee covered by governmental legal penitentiary structure. Almost of territory of the country had in each province its detention center. The exact map of secret prisons identified after years of investigations is situated here:

Full map view

Although, not only bodies were tortured by soldiers. The goal was to destroy the reformist movements: trade unionism, socialism, human rights voluntarism, pacifism. Among this regime without face prisoners (in many testimonies repeats the expression, that decisive persons wore habits or masks. In Chilean narration there was a man in a hood who was a main investigator) there were: priests, nuns, doctors, psychologists, journalists, actors, lawyers and, mostly, students of local universities. Not surprising that in this ugly atmosphere of every-day uncertainty grew up an editorial alliance: editions created the new form of opposition: the comics. DeAgostini, in 1981, so in the time of a light thaw in matter of censorship, occurred one of the most important comic grotesque on regime – Buscavidas, created by Alberto Breccia.

Buscavidas, were published in 1981 and 1982 in comics magazine SuperHum and were created by Alberto Breccia with the screenplay of Trillo. SuperHum was a submagazine of Hum, weekly magazine that attacked economic policy, military regime in a non-serious way. Till the first releases, the main character incorporated the regime. As can be found in Magnussen’s essay [4] Buscavida were a character without face, who lived someone else’s life. Black and white images were a good artistic solution in the dark years of dictatorship. The history focused on distortion of social relations, of annihilation of the families and of lack of communication, caused by fear. In Buscavidas, often there are no family life in a sense of normal, stable institution. There are mothers, who are alone, without husband and children („The Family”, „The grandmother”, „Persecuta”). And if there are any relations, they are forbidden („Marengo”) and persecuted as immoral and reactionist against the regime. The view of the societal life was depressive, full of cruelty and ambivalence. Moreover, Buscavida’s characters were deprived of their dignity, personal uniqueness, social relations and even personal history. In this matter, the creator of this comics would made this drama – drama of forced forgetting and evaporating history as well as evaporating the whole generation – to be public, as did „Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo”, revealing their personal tragedy and letting know about the scale of the mass murder and disappearance. Let us quote the beautiful words, that may be read on the commemorative website of „Desaparecidos” [5]: „For the Mothers, the „disappeared” were taken alive and had to be returned alive. This did not last long as the attention span of the population at large on the topic was short and it was all soon buried”. In that case, Buscavidas also made vivid the disappeared.

Later after Buscavidas occurred in socio-artistic life of Argentina, it appeared to be normal in terms of democratic rules, the rising democratic government allowed to form CONADEP (1983) – National Commission on the Disappeared, which were obligated to commemorate the desaparecidos and to estimate the real number of deaths while „Dirty War”. In 1985, thanks to CONADEP investigations (see also Wikipedia: , began the famous trial of junta’s soldiers, while 2000 of citizens wrote to the government complaints against the military. Right then, the elected president Raul Alfonsin passes the „law of full stop” [6], increasing the progress of the trials and reducing at the same time people susceptible to being prosecuted and lynched by families of Desaparecidos. Two years later, in 1987, Alfonsin established the law of „due obedience”, which supposed to end the persecutions of both sides of conflict. The families of desaparecidos insisted to provide the trials on normal ways, to let things clear to their private histories. Although, the next president Carlos Menem pardoned 280 members of junta and the close of desaparecidos wrote a testimony „Nunca Mas”, establishing the dramatic collective memory of the dictatorship in public life. Today, after twenty years of dictatorship, the argentinian government seem to have consequent anti-militarist ideology. It is worth to mention, that in Buenos Aires in 1998 was found Memory Park for commemorising Desaparecidos and „Dirty War”. The government of the capital with non-governmental organizations approved the project, situating it along the Plata River on North Costanera Avenue in Buenos Aires, near the University of Buenos Aires. About 300 meters north of the park is a military airport that was utilized for the „flights of death” during which victims of the Military Junta government were thrown into the river and sea. To this create the park were invited many artists well-known worldwide like Denis Oppenheimer (Monument to the Escape may be seen here). The essence of the project is the ramped path, meant to form a giant „wound” in the lawn of the park leading just toward the river, where the visitors can distinguish the name of killed or vanished during the „Dirty War”. Among the artist invited to the project is Magdalena Abakanowicz and her figures.

Part2: Chile: The hidden history

When Argentina was bleeding during the short period between 1976 and 1983, Chile had been experiencing the same terror, although at that time it was „established” terror. Namely – first act of violence occured right after the coup d’ etat in 1973. The National Stadium was full of prisoners, taken from the streets and forming only for two months of existing this concentration camp a mass of 12 000 people, among them 1000 of women, also pregnant and 1000 of foreigners. As historians and human-right specialist claim (Wikipedia), in first three months of the military government, at least 100 person were killed (Caravan of Death, Operation Colombo, Operation Condor). Among them famous bard Victor Jara, commemorated nowadays by government as the patron of National Stadium, where he was murdered.

Needless to say, that during the dictatorship of Pinochet (1973-1990), Desaparecidos were the whole generation, whose maturity occurred in 1970s. Still, the are only vague estimations of deaths, but the process of commemorating also appears and has the chance to reinforce the memory of those times. In this chapter, I will focus on two documentaries illustrating the years of terror in Chile: „The City of photographers” by Sebastian Moreno and „Estadio National” by Carmen Luz Parrot.

Documentaries are that kind of material, which is direct as photo and focused on the present time, portraying those, who remember and those, who remember for somebody, who was, in our case, killed and vanished. Those two documentaries clearly show, how much the new generation must do to provide the memory of the years of drama. As one of the “heroes” of that time claimed: we had too much autocensure to talk openly. We talked via photographs, films. So young people who remember the story from their fathers should speak with them or even on behalf of them. This statement show especially the documentary on the National Stadium. When we see the football training and the narrator, who was imprisoned there, we may notice this fact clearly. Especially, that even sport stars from the Chilean representation like Chueco Leppe, were killed there.

The history starts in the 1973, when the first ‚oppositionist group’ – La Legua, is placed in the sectors. They are bitten, tortured in special place after the small, but hard to survive “cyclist path”. Soon, the soldiers can’t cope with all of the bodies, which lay down on the floor near the entrance. Officially, we need to add, there were 38 people identified as killed. In fact, in the relation of one of the prisoners, only in this day, when he was detentioned in the concentration camp, he saw many more victims. During the two months of collecting the prisoners in that place, between September 1973 and November 1973, thousand people were treaten badly – the Chilean Human Right Organization reveals, that mostly they were treated with high tension, sharp equipment like knives, tortured mentally and by deprivation of food and space. In dressrooms, changed onto the cells, stayed often more than 100 people at once. It can be seen on the walls, where the prisoners wrote dates of their detention and their names, just to be remembered, in the words of another survivor.

National Stadium was the official, public place of torture – with irregular visits of the families, with press conferences or visitations of bishops and foreign ministers. Maybe this fact helped the prisoners to live. Most tragedies had place in secret places like: Villa Grimaldi, AGA, La Firma, Colonia Dignidad, Venda Sexy, Londres 38, José Domingo Cañas and Isla de Malpo, Lonquen, which was crucial to the film of the son of one of the photographers of the dictature – Jose Moreno, Sebastian. Like he says at the beginning of his documentary, his childhood was marked by photos – especially by a photo of Luis Navarro – portrayed Lonquen’s prisoners. Behind the wall of many people, was a hole, where they hung till death. This photographer, member of Vicaria de la Solidaritad promised himself at that time to “defend those, who had fallen”. Like many others, he stood on the streets to “take photo-testimonies”. The streets were also the public place of tortures and of demonstrations. It is crucial, especially nowadays, when most visible tragedies of the Chilean regime are collected and revealed to the public life, that the photographs helped the opposition to form and to fight, because where they occurred, nobody was killed. The deaths were performed only without the witnesses. Today the ‚heroes’ of Moreno’s film claim, that camera was a sort of a weapon, letting them to live and to document the regime. Even though, that the youngest member of AFI, Asociacion de la Fotografia Independienta (works of AFI can be seen here:

Rodrigo Rojas, was burned alive on the barricade, where he was without his camera.

Today, those documentary testimonies help to cope with the drama. Although the process of commemorating is harder to execute, because of the late returning path Chile to democracy. As we may remember, Pinochet lost the referendum in 1988 and presidential elections in the next year, delegating his power to Patricio Aylwin, but remaining the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, until March 1998. Thus, the Rettig Commision could estimate the score of the horror not earlier than in 1991. In its findings, there were 3000 people killed by the regime. Further report, the Valech Report from November 2004, added that 24 000 of prisoners were persecuted in detention centers and due to numbers of Latin American Institute of Mental Health and Human Rights (ILAS) close to 200 000 people suffered the great trauma. All of the reports are deposed on desaparecidos site.

It is obvious, that Chile must give salute to their Desaparecidos. Members of AFI created a place called Muro de la Memoria, situated in Bulnes de Santiago de Chile, where they put the photos of any person they can find and identify. Till today, the Muro contains of 950 of photographs of 1.192 of Desaparecidos.Their ‚organic’ work on commemorating is great, because as we can see on the film, they go to the families and take a photos of the victim, that often exists on the bottom of family album as a unique portrait. Then, they transfer this into the tiles of the Muro. But Chile wakes up and beside the Muro, there are plans to build Museum de la Memoria, (plans are here).

Part 3: Internet as a source of collective memory – conclusion

In the close neighbourhood of public investments to commemorate Desaparecidos, the Internet is full of a private testimonies, on which I shall focus at the end of my article. Short presentations, like this:

show small dramas of mothers and families of Desaparecidos, the reality of the Chilean streets and reveals the attitude toward the national tragedy. But, as we could expect, while analyzing the commemorate Argentinian movement, there are much more film on regime of “Dirty War”.

Short view on history in Videla’s speech:

And on Chilean Coup d’etat:

This testimony, set on youtube after 30 years of „Dirty War”, is important message to viewers:

The song of Sting, dedicated to the mothers of disappeared in Chile.

Most of them are sentimental testimonies, but, as we may hear in the one of the presentations, even artists from abroad like: Gothan Project, Sting or Bono, commemorated the victims in their popular songs. These unique narrations on the short-film service visited by millions of unique users, can successfully spread the information, what was the dictatorship in Argentina and Chile, and how not to forget any of the victims of those regime. Collective memory occurs in the popular culture and in the artistic creations and materials like photos and films, not only in books. So we must be aware of advantages of commemorating role of the Internet and media and simply use them to show the shadows, as well as the happy historic moments in our history.

Agnieszka Szmidel

1 Anne Magnussen. Imagining the Dictatorship 1981-1982. Visual Communication, 5, 2006. SAGE Pub.

2 Iwona Irwin-Zarecka. Frames of Remembrance: The Dynamics of Collective Memory. Transaction, 1994, 4

3 Jeffrey K. Olick, Daniel Levy . Collective Memory and Cultural Constraint: Holocaust Myth and Rationality in German Politics, American Sociological Review, 1996, Vol. 62, No. 6, pp. 921-936

4 Anne Magnussen. Imagining the Dictatorship 1981-1982. Visual Communication, 5, 2006. SAGE Pub.


6 Interpreting Victim Testimony: Survivor Discourse and the Narration of History,, 27.02.2008.