Although it won “Best Film” at the 2005 Havana Film Festival, I was a bit wary of “Blessed by Fire” (Illuminados por el Fuego). Billed as an antiwar film based on the novel/memoir of Edgardo Esteban, a veteran of the Malvinas war in 1982, I wondered if it would portray this ill-fated attempt of the Argentineans to wrest control of their territory as a reactionary adventure on the part of the military government designed to deflect attention from the nation’s economic woes. Although this was certainly part of the motivation, history would record that this has been a burning issue for Argentina going back more than 100 years, whatever the character of the government in power.
The character based on the author is named Edgardo Leguizamón (Gastón Pauls), an 18 year draftee–like Esteban himself–who was sent off to fight in the Malvinas. The film begins with him being summoned to the hospital by the wife of Alberto Vargas (Pablo Ribba) a fellow soldier who has just attempted suicide with a mixture of pills, cocaine and booze. In a series of flashbacks to 1982, we find out about the huge psychic toll the fighting took on the foot soldier. Esteban eventually made a career as a journalist, but Vargas went back to factory work after the war ended. Like most Argentine workers, this was like a continuation of battlefield stress. Instead of dodging British bullets, he dodged unemployment–often unsuccessfully.
The film concentrates on the harsh living conditions, the abuse from superiors and the bloody consequences of facing a much better equipped and trained enemy such men were forced to endure. Although it is about a war, there is not much fighting that goes on except for the final rout just before the Argentines surrender.
In the opening scene, we see the grunts ascending from foxholes and bunkers near a Malvinas beach. Shivering and miserable, they stand at attention while a Lieutenant harangues them about their inadequacies as soldiers and about their invincibility in the coming battle. His remarks fully convey the cognitive dissonance that characterized this misadventure from the beginning. Argentina was hardly equipped to build a national economy, let alone take on the second most powerful imperialist nation in the world. The country’s ruler General Leopoldo Galtieri made the fatal mistake in assuming that the US would back him against Great Britain.
It did not matter in the long run how many trade unionists were killed and tortured by Argentina’s death squads, the American imperialists would never break ranks with their British allies. In 1982, Reagan and Thatcher were in power and clearly saw their common class interests in facing down Soviet communism and any impudent 3rd world power that stood in their way. The Argentine generals made the mistake in thinking that they belonged to the winner’s club when Washington and London probably referred to them as “dagoes” behind closed doors.
“Blessed by Fire” is directed by Tristán Bauer, a 48 year old from Mar de Plata. He has made documentaries about Eva Peron, Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges. Peron is obviously a symbol of Argentine nationalism, while the two writers are usually associated with a longing for a European identity. This year Bauer announced his attention to make a film about Che Guevara.
“Blessed by Fire” opens at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in New York and I encourage you to go see it. Although it is not without flaws (mostly having to do with the unwise decision to use a handheld camera, a kind of acid test for independent film-makers nowadays), it is essential viewing for anybody trying to understand the recent history of Argentina and the profound changes taking place on the continent.
Ultimately, Edgardo Esteban’s main complaint was not that a war was fought, but how it was fought. Now nearly 25 years after the Malvinas war, other veterans are making their voice heard.
The Observer (England), January 21, 2007
As the train pulls into the central station of Buenos Aires, Jose is still walking down the aisle hawking a clutch of goods. An olive-green jacket, a patch with an Argentinian flag on his right arm, and a silhouette of the Malvinas Islands signal he is one of the many veterans of the Falklands war supplementing their meagre pensions. What he sells is patriotism – small calendars and stickers bearing the slogan: ‘The Malvinas were, are and always will be Argentinian.’
But he tells a story of betrayal, of himself and 15,000 other veterans of the 1982 war with Britain. In a voice made automatic by repetition, he says: ‘A little help please, I am a veteran of the Malvinas, I have been repeatedly denied jobs simply for being a veteran, my pension is not always enough, I have been forgotten by my country for a long time.’ He has been saying it for 25 years. It is a story repeated by most veterans.
Things have improved, but very late. The most important change came in 1991, when some veterans finally began to receive pensions. The next milestone was the election in 2003 of Nestor Kirchner. He became President on the back of promises on human rights, and increased the pension so the veterans felt able to pull down the green tents they had pitched in front of the government building on the Plaza de Mayo, protesting at lack of compensation and healthcare on the same spot where thousands congregated in April 1982 to cheer the capture of the Malvinas.
But the difficulty of winning a pension is, veterans argue, evidence of neglect which goes back to the war itself. General Leopoldo Galtieri, ‘in his quest to stay in power, had no qualms in sending brave 18-year-old conscripts, with no military training whatever, into a war’, says Norberto Santos, one of those 18-year-olds and now a member of the Centre for Ex-Combatants Islas Malvinas (CECIM). The troops had to endure shortages of ammunition, food, and clothing and suffered from cold, abuse and humiliation by their superiors.
‘Some of us were treated better by the British while in custody in the troop ship Canberra than by the Argentinian forces,’ says Sergio Isaia, another veteran held prisoner. For Santos the war ended when a bomb blew off his left arm. A comrade, thinking he was dying, shot him to end his suffering. Instead, he prolonged it. The neglect continued despite Margaret Thatcher’s victory, the fall of Galtieri and the re-establishment of democracy. One example was the pensions, but the state paid little attention to veterans’ health or post-traumatic stress.
Maria Laura Tapparelli, the widow of Jorge Martire, agrees her husband’s response was to join Argentinian society in forgetting. After 60 days fighting on the Falklands, he returned to La Plata in Buenos Aires province. He found a wife, had three children and studied architecture. ‘He barely spoke about the Malvinas,’ she says. In October 1992, on the way to sit his last exam, he disappeared. He was found later wandering around the city’s main square. He had lost his memory as well as his way. He was hospitalised with symptoms of ‘atypical psychosis’ – what some veterans call the ‘Malvinas syndrome’. One day Jorge was found by the doctors hidden underneath his bed, sheltering from ‘an English bombing’. Early in 1993 he was released. He bought a gun, went to a bar in the city and blew his head off.
Martire – ‘martyr’ in Italian- was far from alone. Suicides are commonplace among veterans, the number – 460, according to CECIM – almost as high as 650 deaths in combat.
Jose says he was unable to find ordinary work because he was a veteran and Santos believes his experiences bear out such claims. He tried to find a job at the municipality of La Plata, his home town, but when he said he was a war veteran he was rejected. A few months later he told another interviewer he had lost his arm in a motorbike accident. He got the job.
Veterans believe that discrimination explains other unusual experiences. Santos married and had three children, but after a few years the couple divorced. His ex-wife told the judge that he was a Falklands veteran and Santos was denied the right even to see his children. ‘I still wander around the courthouse asking what my punishment is for having been on the Malvinas, asking how many years will pass before someone can tell me if I committed a crime,’ he says.
Stories like Santos‘s and the suicide of a friend, as well as his own experience of war, drove Edgardo Esteban to write an autobiography which was turned into an award-winning film, Blessed by Fire. Edgardo, too, was 18 when he was sent to fight. ‘The post-traumatic stress was there, but I managed to send it and my ghosts away and to exorcise myself’.
‘The “blessed by fire” are the madmen, the disturbed, the insane, all those veterans that have been forgotten during this past years,’ he says.
In Argentina the film publicised the realities of the veterans’ lives. ‘The movie gave a voice to the voiceless and the silenced,’ he says. ‘After the war, the military asked us not to say a thing. But why not talk about the Malvinas? ‘
When it was shown in London and Manchester, Esteban remembers some British Falklands veterans crying and giving welcoming applause. ‘There was a very nice dialogue with the British then,’ he says. Some of the British veterans he has seen reflected the same realities from a different side. ‘The British now have to avoid any celebration about the war; even with a victory, wars are not to be cheered.’
But the film upset some in the Argentinian armed forces. ‘The armed forces wanted Rambo-style images, but there are no Rambos in a war, just human beings made of flesh and bones.’
Others look for therapy among people. Juan Cantini, a member of the Union of Veterans of the Islas Malvinas, says: ‘Some of my comrades-in-arms have been wandering around trains for ages, as they started to do before they received their pensions, for an economic need. Some today are still walking up and down the trains and buses as a form of therapy, just to clear their minds for a while and to be surrounded by other people – who, unfortunately, still ignore them.’
But for some it may be more important than even therapy. At Retiro station, Jose waits for the next train back to the suburbs. He sold just a few calendars and stickers on the way out and will probably sell a few more on the way back.
‘The trauma is still with me. I have to keep going, I do not want to succumb to other temptations, like suicide.’