Finding Oscar opens with a letter sent to a dead man, a “victim” of the 1982 massacre of a village in Guatemala that left 250 people dead, including 67 children. It’s an intriguing opening that is indicative of both the triumphs and failures of the film that will follow. The opening credits that list Steven Spielberg as an executive producer also set expectations properly. This is a film with a great story to tell, although it often undercuts it with unnecessary narrative trickery and pumped-up genre elements.
After its ghostly opening, the filmmakers offer an extended history lesson that is likely unfamiliar to those who grew up with American textbooks. In the 1960s, America helped to overthrow the democratically-elected leader of Guatemala, and a civil war erupted. The new government deployed a team of special forces—with tactics inspired by their American counterparts—to punish dissidents, rebel guerrillas, or, as one survivor put it, “anyone who was trying to change the government.” Over the course of the country’s 30-year civil war, 40,000 Guatemalans went missing and were never found alive. The apex of their violent overreach occurred in a small village named Dos Erres. In 1982, they massacred the entire village, threw their bodies into a well, and moved on with their lives.
Amazingly, some of these men emerge years later to admit their crimes. When the government finally appoints a special prosecutor to investigate, she unearths a few soldiers, who speak about their crimes with startling banality in exchange for immunity. There are shades of Joshua Oppenheimer’s two films The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, in which a victim of the Indonesian genocide interviews its perpetrators, many of whom were also still in power. They seemed proud of their crimes, and the members of the Guatemalan kill squad basically do, too.
But while The Act of Killing built irony into its genre elements—Oppenheimer allowed these murderers to dramatically re-enact their crimes on camera—Finding Oscar sometimes superimposes genre to deleterious effect. During the recounting of the massacre, director Ryan Suffern suffers from a lack of faith. Instead of letting the words of the killers—and the heart-wrenching tales of the massacre’s few survivors—speak for themselves, he underlays it with a pulsing synthesizer and interjects time-lapse photography of clouds moving quickly over the sky. It’s a cliche to indicate the passing of time that has been used since, well, the beginning of time.
There is also an unnecessary reliance on shifting back-and-forth between different time periods, when the story may have been better told in sequence. It’s a directorial sleight-of-hand that keeps the viewer off balance, and it pays off nicely with a surprise in the film’s final moments that lands powerfully, but it also obscures some of the film’s stronger elements.
Here’s one: This crime—enabled in part by misguided masculinity—was unearthed and exposed through the tenacity of three women. There’s the founder of a group composed of victims’ families seeking justice, the prosecutor assigned by the state to investigate, and an attorney general who, after being appointed in the 2000s, eventually empowered that prosecutor to act. The quiet power of these women provides a fascinating thematic juxtaposition to the crimes they are investigating, but they get buried by the film’s admittedly more vital content. The fog of filmmaking is only slightly clearer than the fog of war, but most of the time the power of Finding Oscar shines through.
Finding Oscar opens Friday at West End Cinema.