One of the great things about film is giving a voice to issues that we’re not aware of. After watching “Finding Oscar,” I believe it’s important to seek out these type films to expand our understanding of what is happening in the world today, whether it’s good or bad. It’s the least we can do to honor victims of genocide and other atrocities by showing the world what they’ve been through so they won’t be forgotten.
The documentary, directed by Ryan Suffern and produced by the legendary Frank Marshall and Steven Spielberg, follows the search for answers in the Dos Erres massacre in Guatemala in 1982–specifically finding one of two little boys that survived the massacre. I wasn’t aware of the genocide that happened in Guatemala from 1960-1996 in which over 200,000 people were slaughtered by different military regimes, so it was a shock from the beginning.
Suffern does not overcomplicate the film by trying to attempt to explain all of these atrocities, but focuses on Oscar’s story and the activists, lawyers and government officials trying to find justice for hundreds of families searching for their loved ones in decades-old bones.
Oscar and Ramiro were abducted during the slaughter and raised by some of the very soldiers who had murdered their families. The boys offered the only living evidence that tied the Guatemalan government to the massacre. Unlike other documentaries that lay the heavy stuff in the beginning and throughout the film and can feel like you’re just getting a punch to the gut, you are able to go into this story knowing there is hope because we know Oscar is alive.
That makes the journey of learning about these horrific times an easier pill to swallow, but still leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. With the use of actual evidence and archived footage, we also learn what role the U.S. had in this area under the Reagan administration. The documentary gives the audience an overview on what happened to understand the overall situation, but does not drag you down with facts. Instead, it focuses on the human element that made me stay engaged partly because of the realization of the lack of help from the U.S. government to intervene and stop these massacres.
The Dos Erres massacre was one of over 500 massacres that occurred in Guatemala. Suffern does not shy away from depicting the harsh brutalities of this conflict, including images of bones that were buried to be forgotten in a water well in Dos Erres and throughout the country. Through the advancement of DNA technology, scientists are able to track the DNA from these bones and, in working with loved ones who lost family in the massacres, they are aiming to return the deceased to be buried properly.
This was heartbreaking to watch because the whole village of Dos Erres and many others were wiped out and have had such a devastating impact on the indigenous communities.
Dos Erres has been abandoned since the massacre and the aerial shots of the abandoned town solidify the eeriness and destruction of that day. Following the lawyers’ investigation of the Guatemalan military group Kaibiles and the struggle to get some of the known assailants of the crimes tried and convicted was pretty frustrating. The government isn’t held accountable for the massacres and atrocities committed by its own soldiers. Most documentaries will tend to lean toward one side, but in “Finding Oscar,” known Kaibiles soldiers describe some of the things they did, including one throwing a little girl into a well. Watching these interviews was both horrific, yet I felt something for the men who chose to admit their wrongdoing because their stories weren’t so black and white either.
These perspectives of Kaibiles simply let the overall picture be told, yet does not try to sway you to hate or feel revengeful towards these men, which was a very delicate balance to meet on the film’s part. Don’t get me wrong–this is in no way a justification for what they did nor is the documentary about their redemption, but merely the film tells a story that is so incredible and overall hopeful in the midst of such killing.
I highly recommend watching this film, despite the subject matter, because it will surprise you until the very end and display some of the great moments that can arise out of such extraordinary circumstances that it almost feels like you’re watching a movie and not a documentary.
“Finding Oscar” screens twice on Oct. 13 at 7:15 p.m. and on Oct. 17 at 6:30 p.m. You can find tickets and more information here. The OnStory panel with Frank Marshall also takes place on Oct. 17 at 4 p.m. at the Central Presbyterian Church Sanctuary.