Benjamin Naishtat on Rojo and the disappeared of Argentina

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Director Benjamin Naishtat spoke to Socialist Review about his new film Rojo and Argentina in the 1970s and now.

What inspired you to make this film now?

I wanted to make a film about the 1970s, but frankly there were already many films about those years and about the “desaparecidos” [disappeared], the torture and the political activism against all of this. I discovered, however, that there were not films about the silent majority of Argentinians that went through these times either without doing any political activity at all or being accomplices of the regime.

Also my family history played a very significant role. My grandmother was a very prominent trade union lawyer in Cordoba and when the dictatorship took power she was harassed, persecuted, and also illegally arrested. Her history and experience really affected me.

What affected me as well was what she told me about what was happening between ordinary people and in their daily lives. People were so scared that even neighbours living in the same streets did not talk to each other because they were absolutely terrified of what might happen to them. People lived their lives in absolute fear and ultimately keeping it to themselves.

In the film it seems that you really criticise the bourgeoisie and its role in society. Is this what you mean when you say that people did not trust each other?

Yes, this is exactly what I mean. This lack of solidarity. This feeling of “human misery” was one of the main reasons for me to start the project. I also think that this feeling is still very much alive in Argentina today between the middle class and the ruling class whereby there is a strong sense of looking down on ordinary people who are trying to change the system.

There is a strong tension in the film but it never really culminates clearly into representing the disappearances or the torture. Why did you make this choice?

When I started to think about the film and the project, I realised that that for me was very important to appeal to a bigger audience. Not only to people interested in human rights or historical revisionism but also to people that simply wanted to come to the cinema and watch a thriller.

So Rojo has been made as a thriller but there are also many elements that go beyond the genre itself. This kind of cinema was very common in the 70s. I took inspiration from the thriller genre and from directors like Francis Ford Coppola. Also I was influenced by Italian directors like Elio Petri, even if the Italian tradition I am referring to only flirts with the thriller genre (or in Italian the so called “giallo”).

I wanted to ask you about the political situation in Argentina. The presidential primaries in August — effectively a pre-election poll — saw a clear victory for opposition candidate Alberto Fernandez (whose running mate is former president Cristina Kirchner) over current conservative president Mauricio Macri. What do think?

It is obvious from this result that people are not that easily manipulated. Even if Macri tried to use marketing messages and technique to influence the vote, at the end the day the economic situation was the determining factor in the result of the elections.

People voted against Macri’s neoliberal model; against austerity and the cuts to public services; against the politics allowing the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. In this respect the alliance between Fernandez and Kirchner has been able to propose a different model, but what kind of government they will eventually establish and run is not clear as of yet.

The truth is that what will happen will depend as well on what is happening on the streets and how much people can mobilise to push for an agenda that puts ordinary working people before profits.

Rojo is in cinemas from 6 September