Thursday, 7 October 2010

Reflections on "Missing"

In 1973 Charles Horman was an American journalist working in Chile, where he wrote for the periodical FIN and made a home with his wife. He was a Harvard graduate, the only child of successful New York businessman Edmund Horman. In the days following the fascist coup of September 11 1973, he became one of many people “disappeared” by the CIA-backed military dictatorship.

Both his father and his wife spent a month trying desperately to uncover his whereabouts. This painful and heart-wrenching experience would later become the subject of the award winning film Missing, starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, who played Horman’s father and wife respectively (both of whom worked closely with the director Costa-Gavras on the film). It remains to this day a powerful, brave and very moving film.

For its unflinching depiction of the casual brutality of life within a fascist dictatorship, where the army is allowed to operate with impunity, Missing remains an important piece of history, but it is equally important for its timeliness. Filmed under conditions of secrecy in Mexico, and released in 1982 while Chile was still under the control of the junta, it was banned there until after Pinochet eventually relinquished power eight years later. It was also subject to a (failed) lawsuit, brought against Universal Studios and the film’s director by the former US Ambassador Nathaniel Davis, who was depicted but not named in the film, and two others.

It is worth remembering the nature of totalitarian governments, as they are effectively engaged in a one-sided war with their own (captive) populations. This is not something which those of us who have grown up in rich, democratic countries can ever really understand, but the complicity of our own governments in events such as those depicted in a film such as this makes it a part of our shared history whether we like it or not.

One of the most telling things we get from a film like this is some of the subtle ways in which the prevailing attitudes of governments can become internalized by the individuals who grow up under their shadow. Time and again we find, in the early stages of the coup, the American expatriate characters saying to each other “they can’t touch us, we’re Americans”, a delirious self confidence which captures in microcosm an attitude manifested in far more deadly ways by the United States government in its foreign policy, its willingness to intervene in the affairs of weaker nations if they perceive it to be in their “national interest”.

Sadly, this foreign policy shows little sign of changing any time soon, but as an optimist I still look forward to a day when the United States can shed its super-power image and stand as a democracy among democracies. Missing stands as an example of the dangers that can befall ordinary people when power runs away with itself and starts to think of itself as being so unquestionable as to be "super".

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