Throughout the last half of the twentieth century, Central America served as the location for a proxy war between Soviet and American ideologies. With the tangled history of Cuba coloring policy, the push and pull of right versus left cause chaos throughout the region. Through the 1980s there was a particularly appalling grip of terror in Guatemala, a country quite literally ripped apart as Government forces battled rebels in a bloody, brutal stalemate.
Within this barbarity there were stories that emerged of mass killings, events that involved the slaughter of entire communities under the aegis of maintaining control. Part of the insidious nature of these acts was to remove all witnesses save for those culpable, not simply murdering individuals but erasing from memory entire swaths of people.
The truth of these events, long covered up, was teased out by a group of remarkable individuals who spent decades tracking down scraps of information to try and bring to light what had purposely been meant to stay in the dark. In one such killing field they learned that a child had been taken by one of the military commandos and raised as his own. A young boy a living witness to the barbarity, but where was he to be found?
Thus begins the remarkable journey of Finding Oscar, a film that’s at once timeless and timely. A beautiful piece of journalism (building upon the work of many, including ProPublica and NPR), the film is brightly cinematic and thoroughly engaging. For a subject where it’s too easy to turn your head away, Ryan Suffern’s film manages the near-impossible task of being thorough and impactful while also being accessible.
At its heart this is a story of human perseverance and the eschewing of facts of convenience, the luminous light of truth driving forward the many NGO members and other workers who have spent decades uncovering the skeletons both literal and metaphorical buried in Guatemala’s past. Suffern’s background is interesting – he heads up the documentary section of Kennedy/Marshall films and has spent years doing behind-the-scenes work. It was uber-producer Frank Marshall that first brought the story to Suffern’s attention, and along with executive producer Steven Spielberg and the entire creative team behind Oscar Suffern has crafted a film that’s more than worth of association with these titans of contemporary cinema.
The story has echoes to other works such as Joshua Oppenheimer’s sublime film The Act Of Killing, and while the scope and ambition is very different to that masterpiece it’s still a fair comparison. Similarly, a complex yet accessible film like Searching for Sugarman would also make a fair comparator, getting the story behind the story. Yet Finding Oscar remains very much its own work, a hybrid of deep journalistic presentation buttressed by well-structured storytelling and beautifully shot footage. This is a doc that exemplifies what we want from such stories, making the most of the remarkable subjects at the heart and finding ways to tell to a larger audience a tale they didn’t even know they didn’t know.
From its earliest moments through its moving conclusion, the film is all the more impactful given current discourse throughout the world on refugees from barbarity. The quiet grace and dignity of those who more than any others deserve to be angry is humbling, and rather than providing simple answer Suffern and his team allow the complexity of the situation to shine. Yes, there’s a core articulation of a particular point of view, but this doc is no mere polemic or Wiki-like rundown of events. Its richness mirrors the aspects of its subjects, and the work is all the more remarkable for its capacity to at once engage and inform without ever devolving into didacticism.
A beautifully told version of a tale that’s both harrowing and intensely human, Finding Oscar is a remarkable feat of non-fiction that should not be missed. With impeccable storytelling chops the filmmakers tell a tale too often ignored, shining a light that American audiences in particular may find unsettling. Yet it’s this audience in particular that most needs to go out of their way to see the film, not due to some pedagogic obligation but because of what the spirit of the film represents given current political norms. Seek this film out, for it’s well worth your time.