I saw Captive, the debut feature from Gaston Biraben, at New Directors/New Films last night; it's a subtly powerful movie that gripped the sellout audience at MoMA Gramercy.
Captive is a fictionalized telling of real events, a surreal, politically charged story of, "You're adopted...And then some." A 15-year old Buenos Aires girl's life is turned upsidedown when she learns her real parents were among The Disappeared, the tens of thousands of Argentines kidnapped, tortured and killed by the country's military dictatorship in the 70's. On top of dealing with a new family of strangers, the girl has to confront the chilling circumstances of her birth and her adoptive parents' possible complicity in the systematic crimes of the junta.
By keeping a restrained, naturalistic focus on a the experience of one girl, the film tackles the third rail of the Argentine psyche--accountability for The Disappeared--with tremendous skill, and without devolving into political agitprop. Biraben coaxed a highly effective, intuitive performance from his star, Barbara Lombardo, which holds the film together.
Almost the entire audience stayed for the Q&A. Sensing, perhaps, Captive's potential for making great political waves, many questions were about where the film has shown and what was the reaction. It turns out ND/NF is one of the first screenings for Captive, so the impact is still to come. [The film was also at Palm Springs and San Sebastian, where it won the Horizontes award for Latin American films.]
This all serves as setup for the improbably story of Biraben's getting the film made in the first place, and how he scored a cameo that elicited surprised howls of recognition from the New York audience. I spoke with Gaston and his co-producer/editor Tammis Chandler after the Q&A.
In an archetype of independent filmmaking, Biraben is escorting the only complete print of his film to festivals, press screenings, and distributor meetings. In fact, he'd just taken it round-trip from New York to Toulouse for a screening, getting it back just in time for ND/NF.
Captive began as his MFA thesis screenplay for AFI, and was inspired by interviews in Rita Arditti's book, Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of the Plaza De Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina . Biraben transposed the book's testimony from the grandmother's point of view to a child's, but otherwise drew on real incidents and real people's stories.
After shopping it around for a couple of years in LA, Birbaben translated his script and took it back to Argentina to seek funding. Production began in mid-2001, with grants from the National Cinema Institute. [In a twist I can relate to, Biraben lost his lead actor the week before shooting began; he found a far better replacement than I did.] Then, in an unfortunate turn of events for a director spending government money, the Argentine government collapsed, followed by the economy. Biraben went through five crews in ten eventual weeks of shooting. For budgetary reasons, he was forced to shoot several sequences on video, and to leave several scripted scenes unshot. [Neither decision detracts from the film.] For post, Biraben had to head back to LA.
A mad post-production push followed the film's provisional acceptance at San Sebastian last fall, contingent on its completion, that is. So with far more sweat than equity, it seems, they pulled together a single print.
Government involvement wasn't all frustration; it also resulted in some great footage and that priceless cameo. Captive opens with ecstatic scenes of Argentina's 1978 World Cup victory, complete with the final goal and a stadium full of cheering crowds. If the footage hadn't been shot by the military (and made available by the subsequent government), the rights for such footage would have cost approximately $1 billion.
Instead, after some bureaucratic rigamarole, Biraben was granted 30 minutes to review and choose whatever 10 minutes of footage he wanted. During the hectic review of endless shots of the uniformed generalissimos looking on approvingly in the stadium, Biraben spotted a famous face, an honored guest of the murderous junta. It was the smiling face of New York's own, the unaccountable--and as-yet, unindicted--Henry Kissinger. "Suddenly, there he was," Biraben said, "I saw him and said, 'THERE! Take that! I want him in my film!'"