Finding Oscar: Know Your Enemy, by David Bax

20 Apr

Despite the generic title of Ryan Suffern’s Finding Oscar, this documentary is far from anodyne. That much is made clear very early on, as we see multiple skeletons, some still wearing children’s clothing, exhumed from an unmarked mass grave while relatives stand around crying, 30 years of their worst fears being realized with every inch of bone that emerges from the dirt. This is a dark and visceral tale that Suffern is telling. It also turns out to be one jaw-dropping hell of a yarn.

Guatemala’s civil war lasted for 36 years. In that stretch of time hundreds of unconscionable acts of brutality were carried out, largely by the nation’s military forces, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of people. One such abominable occurrence was the December 1982 massacre of nearly every man, woman and child in the village of Dos Erres. With the exception of one lucky escapee and a farmer who happened to be out tending his fields in the middle of the night, the only villagers who survived were two young boys, taken by members of the special forces squad that carried out the slaughter. One of them, Ramiro, was five years old and has spent his entire life with the memory of what happened to his family that night and the years of abuse and servitude that followed. The other boy was three. Too young to remember the event, he was adopted by the family of the soldier, who changed his name and treated him like one of the family (not unlike the events depicted in Luis Puenzo’s 1985 Argentinian film The Official Story). But, with no legal records to work from, the journalists and activists now looking into the Dos Erres massacre start out having no idea where the younger boy is now or who he even was before his adoptive family called him Oscar. Suffern structures his story, which eventually expands to include most of the twentieth century history of U.S./Guatemala relations, around the search for Oscar.

Frankly, there’s a whole lot going on in Finding Oscar. Luckily, Suffern and his collaborators are journalistically adept at organizing and delivering information. Incisive interviews (including some with soldiers who helped carry out the massacre) and archival footage—much of it from the Reagan Library—elucidate the vagaries of the conflict in general and of this terrible incident in particular.

Suffern’s utilization of visual documents from President Reagan’s own library is ironic, given that most of it is used to implicate the man himself. Finding Oscar almost entirely sticks to on this one incident at Dos Erres, a wise choice that lends clarity and focus. But the film never lets you forget that this is only one example out of many. So when the paper trail clearly demonstrates that the Reagan administration was well aware of this crime but continued friendly relationships with Guatemala’s strongman leader anyway, the question almost asks itself. How much else did they know and ignore? Suffern allows his interviewees to offer their conclusions. Phrases like “complicity by omission” and “tacit participant” are thrown around. And they stick.

Of course, that’s just part of the story. Most of the blame, Finding Oscar understands, lies with the Guatemalan government and military, whose steadfast insistence on impunity kept these crimes literally buried for decades, to be unearthed only by dedicated private citizens and activists. Even now, twenty years after peace was established, talking about such things out loud in Guatemala is reason to look over your shoulder.

Finding Oscar succeeds not just because it’s such a fascinating story but because Suffern never loses sight of the complex individuals and emotions at the center of it. The film may travel throughout Central America, the U.S. and eventually even Canada but no world is as big as the one that exists inside each person’s heart and mind. Childhood photos of young Oscar elicit reactions that battle with one another. This is the man Oscar loved and called Papa, the same man who also helped murder his real family. It’s heartwarming. It’s vile. It’s human.

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