December 21, 2020

Alumni Spotlight: Robert Bahar '00

By Jason Ng

Emmy and Goya award-winner Robert Bahar '00 joins us to talk about his documentary The Silence of Others. A project that spanned over six years to complete, The Silence of Others follows those who seek justice against the political crimes of General Franco during his 40-year dictatorship over Spain where the perpetrators of these crimes have been granted impunity due to an amnesty law implemented in 1977. The documentary offers a glimpse into Spain’s painful history, but more importantly, it shows the resilience of humanity as the victims of an authoritarian regime are banding together to fight back and break the silence surrounding the atrocities of the past. 

The Silence of Others has won over thirty-five international prizes, including the 2019 Goya for Best Feature Documentary, the Panorama Audience Award and Peace Film Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, as well as two awards at this year’s Emmys including Best Documentary. It is currently available to stream on Netflix.

What draws you to documentary filmmaking?

I actually studied electrical and computer engineering in college, but was also always doing lighting and sound for community theater, and working at my campus TV station. I found documentary filmmaking when a sociology professor taught us about a case of “environmental racism” near where I grew up outside of Philly. I felt that a film would help to expose this injustice, and spent more than a year collaborating on a one-hour documentary that was eventually shown locally on PBS and made an impact. In the process, mentors steered me to the films of Barbara Kopple and the social documentary tradition, which moved me deeply.

After college, I decided to pursue film and was thrilled to be accepted into USC’s Peter Stark Producing Program to study creative producing. While at Stark I was also lucky to produce a 547 documentary and to get to know USC’s amazing documentary faculty. I really feel I got the best of both worlds at USC, learning both producing and documentary filmmaking. After graduating with an MFA, I quickly focused on documentaries, and especially films that could make a social impact.

What inspired or motivated you to make The Silence of Others?

My filmmaking partner (and wife) Almudena Carracedo is Spanish, and she was born just a few years before Franco, Spain’s dictator for 40 years, died. As a child, she handed out ballots during Spain’s first democratic election, and remembered her parents and their friends’ hopes for the new democracy. And she had always wanted to make a film that would explore the shadows that Spain’s dictatorship cast on the democracy.

Then, in 2010, while we were living in Brooklyn, we started to hear about cases of stolen children from the time of the dictatorship that were just starting to come out. As new parents ourselves at the time, we were really shaken by what we read. It also seemed like a story that could help explore those shadows. So we temporarily relocated to Spain and, as we researched, we discovered the Argentine lawsuit, which was a bigger legal effort to challenge the silence and impunity around a range of crimes of the dictatorship, which had been put aside when Spain transitioned from dictatorship to democracy in the 1970s.

The journey of the lawsuit gave the film a present-day vérité story that unfolds in front of the camera as a structure, and offers a frame for looking into the past. It was also something hopeful, because rather than just telling the stories of past crimes, we were following victims and survivors on a quest for justice.

From winning the Goya for Best Feature Documentary to winning two Emmys, what does it mean for you to see the critical recognition garnered by your documentary?

The awards life, distribution life, and impact life of a film really go hand in hand. So the awards were tremendously helpful. The Goya is Spanish filmmaking’s highest honor, and six of the film’s protagonists came up on stage with us to receive the award. It’s one of many examples of how the film was able to give them a platform. The Goya also helped when the film was on Spanish public TV, and more than 1 million people watched it!

Winning both Emmys was amazing, but so was what happened the next day. Spanish public television changed their primetime schedule to re-broadcast the film that night, the Prime Minister of Spain himself tweeted about the Emmy win, and the film trended on Twitter. Another 536,000 people saw it that night and, we hope, were impacted by it. So the awards keep the film, its protagonists, and the issues it portrays in the public conversation - they keep it alive and help it reach new people.

The filming of The Silence of Others spanned six years. What, if anything, changed for your documentary over that time period?

You learn so much by spending six years with people. You also develop trust. And because Almudena and I work as a two-person team (in addition to directing together, she is a cinematographer and I record sound) we would just slowly get to know people as we returned to their houses week after week or month after month. And that trust and that intimacy are conveyed on screen.

What is the meaning behind the title of the documentary, and how might it relate to some of the current issues going on in the world right now?

The title comes from an interview with Spanish writer Dulce Chacón, speaking about the silence of the generation who are now in their 40’s and 50’s: "We belong to a generation of the silence of others. Our parents were too close to the time to be able to speak. Nor have we been able to tell our children because we do not know. Our generation must look back so we can keep looking forward." The film explores this idea of a generalized silence, which stemmed from fear that was stoked during the dictatorship and the “pact of forgetting” that was forged during the transition to democracy. And to me it really resonates in this global moment where ultra-right parties and “strongman” leaders are gaining ground on almost every continent. We all need to understand our history and its legacy to move forward. And we need to understand that silence often serves impunity, and that breaking silence often helps fight impunity.

The Silence of Others “brings to light a painful past that Spain is reluctant to face even today.” What is so important about remembering the past and to not neglect it?

At the time of Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1970s, an amnesty law was passed that freed political prisoners but that also protected government officials who had commit crimes in the name of the dictatorship. This was part of a “pact of forgetting” that was put forth to help the society move forward. But what were the effects of this pact? That, 40 years later, victims of torture would still be living 500 meters from the police officers who tortured them. That, to this day, more than 114,000 bodies would still be in mass graves. That thousands of suspected cases of stolen children have still never been investigated. And it goes on. There’s been a great human cost, and the bottom line is that victims and survivors of crimes of the dictatorship – many of whom were persecuted or tortured because they were fighting for democracy – were again marginalized or made invisible.

The Silence of Others has been screened all across the world, and its impact felt throughout many different countries and cultures. How do you react to seeing the resounding reception of your documentary by other non-Spanish cultures?

Every country has something that has been silenced or that some would prefer to be forgotten, and the film often serves as a proxy to explore local issues. At screenings in 2018, Brazilian audience members talked about their fears of the incoming Bolsonaro regime (the film opened theatrically in Brazil in March 2019). In Morelia, Mexico, the film was used for a deep discussion about the “disappeared” in Mexico’s drug wars and was later shown in the Mexican Senate. In Beirut, film protagonist and former torture victim Chato Galante led a screening/discussion to help explore delicate themes of transitional justice. In Canada, the film brought out memories of the system of residential schools that, for nearly 100 years, sought to isolate indigenous children from their families and wipe out their culture. In the U.S., The Silence of Others has triggered discussions about Civil War monuments, the continuing use of Confederate symbols, and the family separations at the border. Just before COVID there was even a special screening at the United Nations followed by a discussion around transitional justice.

To me, all of this shows that the film is working on many, many levels and that it is at once complex and nuanced enough to catalyze analysis, yet powerful enough emotionally to push people to look inside themselves or their societies.

The Silence of Others is now available on Netflix. How has streaming allowed greater access to your documentary by viewers all around the world?

After premiering in Berlin, The Silence of Others initially launched country-by-country, with theatrical distributors or broadcasters bringing it to audiences in 17 countries: in the US, it premiered at Film Forum and played 30 cities before airing on PBS/POV; in France more than 100,000 people saw it in theaters; in the UK it aired on BBC Storyville; in Portugal it premiered on the anniversary of the Carnation Revolution, and more.

But then, last summer, it launched on Netflix in 47 countries, and suddenly, more than 100 million households had immediate access to it. Many of them had already heard about it due to festivals and awards, and the word that it was now available spread quickly. Premiering on Netflix really gave the film a brand-new life, and the impact has been especially powerful in Latin America, where people have drawn parallels to their own struggles with post-dictatorship legacies, transitional justice and amnesty laws. It’s been pretty amazing.

What are your words of advice for aspiring documentary filmmakers who feel strongly about a subject that they want to pursue?

This is a time when aspiring filmmakers really can capture amazing stories, especially if they can secure some sort of special access. The most important thing, I think, is to focus on story and theme, and to understand how to tell a story and why it should be told. It’s actually easier to get all the technical filmmaking elements right than it is to figure out the characters, story, structure and ideas. Once you can prove that you have captured something special, know how to tell it, and why it matters, there really are avenues to build support for good projects.

I also always suggest that aspiring filmmakers pursue two paths in parallel. First, be working on your own film, be it a documentary or a script that you’re writing. But also be working in the industry, in a position that you like, where you can learn from other filmmakers, and make friends who just might become future collaborators. Your “big break” might come when your own film breaks through and gets attention or financing. Or you might achieve success by slowly moving up the ladder, until eventually you find you’re doing exactly what you’d like to be doing. And ideally, the two paths feed each other.

Also, remember that this is a very hard business, and that it takes patience, persistence and sometimes a lot of struggle. The more you can surround yourself with people who you care about and respect and want to support, the more you’ll have a community to depend on.

Are there any projects that you are currently working on or have planned that you would like to share with our readers?

Almudena and I are currently in the research process of what we think will be our next big project, but it’s a little early to share details… I definitely think that our journey will include more documentaries and impact, but we are also exploring more experimental, essayistic filmmaking and developing a possible fiction project. Let’s see!