Questions of national and transnational film aesthetics, ethics, and politics in Costa Gavras’s Missing (1982)

The following is the text of a talk given on November 17, 2007, by Catherine Grant at the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies, University of London. The talk was part of a study day onThe National/Transnational in Hispanic and Latin American Film and the Telenovela. 

See the accompanying PowerPoint presentation by clicking HERE.

(Please note: Some typos have been corrected and awkward sentences have been rephrased in this version, but otherwise it is the same as the one delivered that day. It was written to be spoken and then discussed, so it doesn’t follow through on all its points in detail. There is also currently a problem with hyperlinks for the footnotes below, so don’t click on those: just scroll down)

Questions of national and transnational film aesthetics, ethics, and politics in Costa Gavras’s Missing (1982)

Copyright 2008 by Catherine Grant  

In the field of Latin American film studies, there has been a great deal of prescriptive criticism about how ‘dominant’ forms of cinema, sometimes even in the name of solidarity and raising political awareness, have crushed, deformed, or simply replaced the attempts of certain, more beleaguered, national cinemas to tell ‘their own’ stories about traumatic, political events. Rather than simply joining in with that criticism, I have set out to examine, analyse and account for what has actually happened with these ‘internationalised’ film stories during the last thirty years. For me, films are never just ‘national’ (and therefore ‘good objects’) or ‘international/transnational’ (and therefore ‘bad objects’): films are always made somewhere, by people who always come from somewhere, and although they may or may not be seen in lots of different places, they are obviously always seen in specific places and in specific circumstances. It is important, therefore, to study the unequal exchanges involved in such transactions, rather than simply to make assertions about iniquitousness at the outset.

The material I will discuss in my paper for this Study Day draws on research for a project on the international fiction and documentary cinema about South American dictatorships and their aftermath, from September 11, 1973 to the present, and concerns one of the most obvious films to include in such a project: the Greek-French filmmaker Costa-Gavras’s 1982 film Missing for the North American production company Universal (on the recently released DVD of this film, the cover trumpets the movie as ‘The first American film by Costa-Gavras’). This ‘US film’ about a hugely significant Latin American ‘event’, made by a non-US/non-Latin American filmmaker, has been vehemently criticised, over the years, on the political, ethical and aesthetic grounds of cultural and ethnic imperialism, and dominant-cinema ‘manipulation’. How might a methodological narrative negotiate the minefield posed by these critical discourses? What I hope to show in my illustrated talk about Missing is that any study of cinema in a national (or ‘transnational’) and historical context can only be well served by paying close attention to the important political and ethical questions raised by how films aesthetically organise their multiple audiences’ access to knowledge and affect.

This work is part of a longstanding project on international fiction and documentary cinema about South American dictatorships and their aftermath from September 11, 1973 (date of Chilean coup) to the present. This work focuses principally on films that deal with the military coups, subsequent regimes, democratic transitions and human rights struggles in Chile (1973-1990) and Argentina (1976-83) not only because these are contained within my overall dates, but also because they are by far the most commonly represented in international cinema in this period.

The research I’m talking about today involves material from my study of one of the most obvious films to include in a book on international cinema about the dictatorships and the Disappeared: the Greek-French filmmaker Costa-Gavras’s 1982 film Missing for the American production company Universal. On the recently released DVD of this film, the cover trumpets the movie as ‘The first American film by Costa-Gavras’.

The film was an adaptation of a 1978 non-fiction book originally called The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice by Thomas Hauser. The book investigated the real life ‘disappearance’ and then murder of an American citizen in the first days after the coup in Chile (Horman disappeared on September 17 1973), with the certain complicity, and probably active participation, of the American State Department under Henry Kissinger.

In my wider project on the films of the disappeared I study Missing alongside the only other film Costa-Gavras has made, to date, about South American politics, the 1973 French-German-Italian co-production Etat de siege/State of Siege. Not an ‘American film’ in the ways that Missing is, State of Siege is about the Uruguayan guerrilla movement, the Tupamaros, and their kidnapping and execution of a United-States citizen who, in the run up to several coup d’états in the continent, had been instrumental in training the police forces of Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Uruguay in illegal counter-insurgency methods including torture. Interestingly, this film, also based on real life events and people investigated by Costa-Gavras and screenwriter Franco Solinas, was filmed in Chile in 1972, a year before the coup there, because by that time a military government was in power in Uruguay, preventing shooting there. Like the representation of the unnamed Chile in Missing, a film which was shot in Mexico because of Pinochet’s government  Uruguay is never actually named as the country in which State of Siege is set, however. My general strategy in my work is to compare the earlier film with Missing in terms of their use of locations, their politics of language and their politics of casting, and to consider the two films as part of a project to make, as Costa-Gavras has called it, a ‘documented cinema’ about US intervention in Latin America.

While I’m happy to take questions on any of these matters, my talk today is on an even more narrowly defined topic. My sub-title – ‘Film Aesthetics, Ethics, and Geopolitics’  –alludes to the range of methodological difficulties raised by fact that, of all of the filmmakers whose work I have examined, Costa-Gavras’s films in general, and Missing in particular, have been the most criticised on the political, ethical and aesthetic grounds of cultural and ethnic imperialism, and dominant-cinema ‘manipulation’. How can my methodological narrative negotiate the minefield posed by these critical discourses? How, indeed, can one best respond to the following words from Haile Gerima, an Ethiopian filmmaker based in the United States?:

The image and, as a consequence, the status of Third World people in commercial cinema is one of stereotypical characterisations, a backdrop for the dominant Euro-American groups. It is comparable to the status of the fly on our planet. […]

Flies might be interesting for those obsessed with overpopulation, for they are a danger and threat to the privileged, “developed” society. You can’t count them. They don’t have names. Who cares to speak their language? If they care to live on this planet, they have to study ours. Who takes their life seriously? Only Western life. Culture? Good for the background, for the exotic. They will be Native Americans, Arabs, Africans and Asians. When they charge towards the Anglo-Saxon hero and heroine, they fall and die well, they know how to get beaten up and killed. For heavens sake, who goes to see flies talk and debate about love and hate, their desires and dreams of changing the world?

This is the reality of the out-of-context people whose life is an inhuman life, whose death is non-human, whose marriage and birth is non-human. These types of reality, often illustrated in film, are especially exemplified by a film entitled Missing. Missing is a typical motion picture of the kind that deceives Third World people by letting us appear but denying in essence our very existence by its deeper testimony. Throughout the film, we witness a graphic depiction of masses of faceless, nameless Third World people in the background, while in the foreground we are skilfully manipulated and emotionally tormented by one American character who is missing. The agenda is set for us. We are subliminally made to believe in the value of the Gods, the stars, the models, the toys. The disappearances and mutilations of Third World peoples in the midst of the drama and the romance of the stars is insignificant. The film illustrates the human value of the European American, while simultaneously devaluing other human beings, specifically Third World people. This value is illustrated daily by the mass media of the dominant world in its highlighting the value of Westerners over and above Third World people. We are told again and again that in order to make the world understand our case it must be endorsed by the stars of the West playing our experiences for us. Through this technique, we will attract sympathy and solidarity to further communicate to all human beings our existence. Personally, if it has to take the stars and the toys of cultural domination to depict my grandmothers, my fathers and mothers, I call this dictatorship, obscene and unacceptable.

Any sympathy or solidarity acquired as a result of this tragic misrepresentation is a travesty of the truth. It only reinforces a dominance which in the end is illegitimate and corrupt. It is psychologically devastating in the long run. If we cannot achieve our desired objectives by presenting our human dilemma, interacting as we are, the cycle of dependency will only intensify the self-destructive aspect of this planet. Human beings should be able to receive the emotional as well as the intellectual message of my film expression, apparent in the eyes, face, posture and essence of my own grandmother. I should never be forced to replace my own kind for irrelevant and extraneous considerations. This will only continue to exaggerate, spoil, corrupt and delude the Western peoples. No wonder they go around invading countries, assassinating visionaries and replacing governments as part of their quest to rearrange the world. No wonder the world is divided between human beings that are dispensable and those that are indispensable. These kinds of consideration feed into the already bad state of the planet. This is what is called silent violence.[1]

Now, to pause for a moment,  it is clear from this last paragraph that Gerima is less concerned with the deficiencies of Hollywood or Euro-American film representations, like Missing, than he is with ensuring that filmmakers in the Third World resist the cultural and economically imperialist pressures to imitate that cinema by, amongst other things, succumbing to the casting of foreign stars. Much of his argument on these points derives from his adherence to the ideas about the harmful effect of cultural and ethnic mimicry articulated by the writer Franz Fanon. Indeed, Gerima cites Fanon’s words at the end of this section of his essay:


“Nothing is more logical amongst us than a racist humanitarianism. Since the

European has only been able to become a man by creating slaves and monsters, Comrades, let us not honour Europe by creating states, institutions and societies in its image. Humanity expects more from us than this caricatural and generally obscene imitation.”

Franz Fanon’[1]


Along with much of the tenor of Gerima’s specific argument about Missing, his citing of Fanon’s words here – ‘Racist humanitarianism’ – raises the ghost not just of political difficulties with the making, distribution, and indeed with the study of foreign solidarity cinema, but also of ethical difficulties. Not only does Missing, according to Gerima, politically ‘deceive Third World people’ with its humanitarianism, by ‘letting’ them appear. It also denies their ‘very existence’, unethically depicting them as faceless and nameless masses in the background of a story that is really not ‘theirs’. Missing, he argues, ‘devalues’ the story of the obviously much more numerous disappearances and mutilations of Third World people. Whether or not it might be politically advantageous for a foreign solidarity cinema to exist, to tell the world ‘what happened in Chile’, ethically it is wrong to have the stars of the West ‘play the experiences’ of Third World peoples, standing in for them, or in front of them, in their own stories.

            Now, on one level, at least, it would be fairly easy to dismiss Gerima’s views here as polemic and nothing more: he simply asserts his argument about Missing, providing next to no evidence for it. If, instead, I were straightforwardly to agree with him, my way forward would also be relatively simple. I could examine the film to find examples of what he is arguing. Similarly, I could disagree with his argument, and try to find my own examples of how Missing does in fact value Third World peoples and their stories – there are several, admittedly secondary, Chilean characters with faces and names who appear in the film, for instance. But, my position is more difficult because I both agree and disagree with what he is saying. I consent to some of the terms of his argument, so to speak, and so cannot easily stand outside of them. I agree that, in an ideal world, Third World filmmakers should not be pressurized to ‘copy’ Western forms in order to get their films made and distributed. I also agree that it is highly unfortunate that Euro-American films, like Missing have probably ‘stood in for’ and ‘in front of’ potential home-grown films about these events. And it is hard to disagree with him about Missing‘s privileging of Western stories and use of Western aesthetics. But, of course, the whole point of my project is to study the world, and its film production and distribution, as it actually exists, that it is to say still ridden with cultural and economic imperialism, as well as confronted by many other obstacles to freedom of expression. Missing was a relatively successful film at the box office, in many countries, and it did raise, for all its faults, international consciousness of the enduring existence of the military dictatorship, and the continuing impunity of those who planned it and were participating in its continuing atrocities. It is an obvious point to make, but a Chilean film about the Chilean coup was impossible in 1982 with Pinochet still in power, and to this day there are very few fiction films that have been made in Chile about these events because of what has been a very slow, and still not complete, transition to a post-Pinochet democracy. But most importantly from the point of view of sorting out my methodology, I am concerned that Gerima’s blanket notion of ‘Third World peoples’, so effective in and necessary to his polemic in 1986 when he first delivered this material in a lecture at a festival of Third Cinema in Edinburgh, is very unhelpful today in studying the specific aesthetics, ethics and politics of Missing in its various historical and geographical contexts. Is it possible to unpick his terms, all the while being aware of their utility to a political and ethical stance, to allow for a more nuanced assessment of the concerns he raises with regard to Missing?

            I shall return to this question later but there are two further objections to Costa-Gavras’s films that I would like to add to my list of difficulties in establishing a methodology with which to study them. Given my general sensitivity to the political and ethical claims that have been made internationally about the films I am examining, it was obviously important to look for published discourse about Missing in Chile itself when I made a research trip there in the course of my research (in 2002). Despite the fact that Missing was banned during the dictatorship and was not officially released on video in Chile until the early 1990s, (and it had still not been shown on network television by 2002), many Chileans had seen the film either outside of their country, or on video cassettes which clandestinely circulated in the 1980s. I examined thirty years worth of newspapers and magazines in Chilean archives, and unsurprisingly found hardly any published reference to the film from the date of its release until the end of the dictatorship, and not much from the period since. This has less to do, I think, with a generalised level of interest in the film, which anecdotally I can report was relatively high, and more to do with a persisting caginess outside of left-wing publications and circles about discussing anything to do with the coup, or with the dictatorship. Because the film won the Palme d’Or and the prize for Best Actor for Jack Lemmon’s performance at Cannes in 1982, a festival always heavily covered by the Chilean newspapers, as well as the Best Screenplay Oscar in 1983, the title of the film and the name of its director were mentioned in the mainstream press, though absolutely no information was given about the film’s ‘content’. The only other published reference to the film during the dictatorship that I could find came in a 1988 film-magazine review of Richard Attenborough’s 1987 film Cry Freedom. This film was not released in Chile until after the dictatorship but the review appears in Enfoque, the journal of the Instituto Chileno Canadiense, which ran between 1983 and 1990 and was principally dedicated to the internationalist project of covering cinema produced outside of Chile. Interestingly, the publication had a very strong ‘Third Worldist’ political outlook, and reviewed a great deal of New Latin American political cinema. I can only assume that it escaped censorship by being attached to a foreign institute, by not referring explicitly to films about the Chilean coup or dictatorship, and also by not being properly distributed in Chile – copies seem only to have been held at the Institute itself and to have been donated to the National Library after Enfoque ceased publication. In the review, the writer José Leal raises the specific problem of audience address and identification:  

[Cry Freedom] is conceived as a pamphlet, a generous one, undoubtedly, but strictly Eurocentric, and destined for a basically liberal audience, one which is nonetheless not very profound in its demand for political analysis. A little like Missing by Costa-Gavras, the film manifestly manipulates its sequencing and dramatic progression in order to provoke a strong audience identification with its harassed protagonists. However, such an identification is not strictly with Biko or the Black leaders, nor even with the suffering townspeople and schoolchildren of Soweto, but with the right-thinking and squeaky clean [higiénico] White journalist, who we have to follow for long passages while he achieves his escape with his family. By the magic of Eurocentric political demagoguery all of the story’s interest is shifted onto the figure of the character nearest its audience, a little like the style of the gringo disappeared during the Chilean Military Coup which constitutes the central plotline in Missing.[2]


            The same concerns about identification and audience manipulation are raised again by Leal in a post-dictatorship piece for Enfoque on the whole of Costa-Gavras’s career to date on the occasion of the release outside of Chile of his 1989 film Music Box.[3] His article is very interestingly entitled ‘The Chameleonic Cinema of Costa-Gavras’. And similar concerns are also raised by numerous writers discussing Costa-Gavras’s work in the US and Europe. The US film journal Cineaste has carried lots of pieces on these issues over the years, including Guy Hennebelle’s very critical ‘Z movies or What Hath Costa-Gavras Wrought?’ in 1974 and James Monaco’s more generous ‘The Costa-Gavras Syndrome’ in 1976, suggesting that, for these critics, these ‘problems’ predate Missing in Costa-Gavras’s work. Monaco explains the Costa-Gavras ‘syndrome’ as follows: ‘For any political filmmaker who wants to speak to a large audience (and this is an important differentiation) the Costa-Gavras Syndrome proves a very sticky dilemma. “Each member of the audience sees a movie with the culture, information and the character he has” [Monaco is citing Costa-Gavras here]. How to break through that shell. It’s not a question easily answered.’ [4] In due course, Missing was reviewed very positively by Cineaste as a successful example of a commercial political thriller.

            It is Fredric Jameson, however, who raises most compellingly the question of genre in relation to debates about problematic identification and manipulation. In his 1992 book The Geopolitical Aesthetic, Jameson’s albeit passing mention of Missing occurs in a chapter-section on the 1980s political conspiracy thriller, ‘stories of knowing’ distinct in terms of their ontology from ‘stories of doing.’[5] He writes of this sub-genre that the ‘detective’ in these films ‘will either be an intellectual in the formal sense from the outset, or will gradually find himself/herself occupying the intellectual’s structural position by virtue of the premium placed on knowledge or the cognitive by the form itself’ (p. 38). He lists Missing as one of a number of films, among Under Fire (Spottiswoode, 1983), Salvador (Stone, 1986), The Year of Living Dangerously (Weir, 1983), in which the ‘apparent realism and the seemingly overt political content […] should not be allowed to distract us from the deeper problems of representation and representability they all confront’ (p. 39).  In the rest of the chapter section he compares Oliver Stone’s Salvador with Spottiswoode’s Under Fire, two films in which US protagonists report on conflicts in Central America. He argues that even though such films are

 structured in advance as films-for-us, for the North American public, and seem to raise the issue of [radical cultural] difference only at the price of consenting in advance to a structure that will ensure their failure to overcome it […] [w]e would be wrong to conclude that this structure always necessarily locks us back inside our own heads and involves what used to be called psychological projection […]. Images, while not objective in the sense that people used to use the term “photographic”, are nonetheless material and open to inspection in ways the much weaker identification dynamics of film [as opposed to written narrative] can never completely master (this proposition, which can be said to argue for a general dissemination of meaning in the filmic image, is also the central tenet of Bazinian “ontological realism”) (p. 40).

Jameson goes on to argue for a dual narrative perspective in the ‘guerrilla war correspondent film ‘which leaves us relatively free to read the text as the story of the subject or the object: either the protagonist’s drama as an outsider and a witness, or the convulsive realities of Central America itself’ (p 40). He adds, however, that these alternatives are ‘only apparently symmetrical: Under Fire – with all its real aesthetic and political merits[6] – surely ends up reprocessing its materials into a vehicle for the conventional pathos of the old-fashioned individual protagonist’ (p. 40). Salvador, on the other hand, through what Jameson calls its ‘effacement’ of its US protagonist (p. 41) ensures that ‘as long as you read the movie as a film about Central America, the dilemmas of the protagonist [who can’t cope with his life as a whole or his experience of the war in El Salvador] (now positioned in secondary perspective) have representational authenticity. But the inverse is also true: and one is tempted to conclude that – owing to the radical otherness and difference of the Salvadorian class war from North American experience – we read its nightmarish objectivity by way of the subjective nightmare of the protagonist’s messy existence, which we “know” much better and which “computes” within our experience. More than a metaphor, therefore, the subjective narrative has the function of an analagon with respect to the objective or social narrative’ (p. 43).

            Rather like Gerima’s diatribe, Jameson’s arguments here largely rely on assertion; his evidence, such as he offers any, operates on the level of a few narrative signifieds re-presented from the films, these signifieds being equivalent here to already highly interpreted narrative events/elements.. Jameson’s ideas are, nevertheless, very suggestive, and do offer some ways in which aesthetic analysis might enable us at least to begin to address in a practical way some of the political and ethical concerns voiced by many critics.

            First of all, we could apply to an analysis of Missing Jameson’s understanding that film’s ‘much weaker dynamics of identification’ might allow quite easily for at least dual narrative perspectives. This might also help to problematize José Leal’s assertion about Costa-Gavras’s manipulative sequencing: Missing is obviously presenting at least two ‘stories of knowing’ through its flashback and flashforward structure which follows both Charles Horman’s search to find out what is happening in the first days of the coup with all the American military and embassy officials he meets at the coast, as well as his father and wife’s later search for him. And spectators can clearly move fluently between those two ‘stories’. But the film could also be offering yet further ‘stories of knowing’, ones that a rigid adherence to the idea of Hollywood manipulation might prevent us from acknowledging. All of this certainly complicates another of Leal’s claims, that Missing has just has one clear central ‘plotline’ (‘the gringo disappearing).

A ‘film-for-us,’ supposedly like Missing, might possibly contain a ‘film-for-them’, to begin to reintroduce some of Gerima’s vocabulary, if, as Jameson argues of Salvador, its subjective narrative has the function of an analogon with respect to the objective or social narrative. In Missing this might very likely be its other ‘story’ of the Chilean coup. An analogon for Jameson (in his rather unnecessary jargon) is a ‘quasi-material object of perception off which we read, as from a material interpretant, the narrative language of another set of events: in Salvador, that film’s use of a ‘nightmare we understand [the protagonist’s chaotic life and inability to cope] to conjure up a nightmare we cannot even imagine’.

In other, perhaps more simple, words, one could search for those moments in Missing that might point to some analogy or resemblance between something we see directly, perhaps in the foreground of depicted events, and another ‘story’ which is not so foregrounded.  We might be alerted to this analogy, or analogous story, although Jameson does not say so, in similar ways to those employed by more straightforwardly allegorical films when they alert us, as it were, to the possibility of interpreting them as allegories, to the probability that they might be ‘speaking otherwise’.[7] The material interpretant (the element that prompts us as to when we ought to seek an analogy) might be a constantly repeated motif, or a moment which punctures the film’s otherwise fairly smooth veneer of 1980s Hollywood realism, as in allegorical representation more generally. 

TEN MINUTE SEQUENCE FROM MISSING SHOWN: one hour into the film, beginning with Jack  Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, as Ed and Beth Horman, meeting embassy officials in the lobby of their hotel.

I’ve deliberately chosen a sequence that presents just the kind of problematic moments in Missing that Haile Gerima is angry about. We witness a graphic depiction in the background of masses of faceless (or at least unindividuated), nameless Third World people, some who ‘fall and die well, they know how to get beaten up and killed’.[8] Meanwhile, in the foreground, we are skilfully manipulated and, possibly, emotionally tormented by some American characters who are ‘missing’. Certainly, it is true that because of the Missing‘s consistent ‘structure of sympathy’, as Murray Smith, in Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion and the Cinema (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997),  calls film’s ‘distinct levels of engagement with fictional characters’ (p. 5), we not only recognise the American characters, whom we have seen in earlier sequences, and whose names the film has made every effort to attach to their recognisable bodies, but we have also been aligned with them. That is to say, because they frequently occupy centre-frame, and have spoken and been spoken about, ‘we have come to be able to evaluate them on the basis of the values they embody’, and possibly also to form ‘more-or-less sympathetic or more or less antipathetic allegiances with them’, [again using Murray Smith’s schema (p. 75)]. However, as regards the Chilean or non-American characters in the stadium sequence, we have not even arrived at the most ‘basic level at which [we] grasp and construct characters’ (p. 10): the level of recognition. With the possible exception of the character who is led off down the corridor whose face the camera does capture for a moment in an iconographical display of impending victimhood, none of them would be recognisable to us on the basis of their appearance in this sequence: the camera and editing take care not to show them as individuals, not to hold them in the frame.

And yet people are not the only potentially important element in the background throughout my chosen excerpt, either in the stadium sequence, or before or after it. In the stadium we see, fleetingly but repeatedly, Pepsi Cola logos on several signs and a finally on the side of a large pillar machine (the film as a whole constantly contrasts the shiny magnificence, consistency and professionalism of American logotype design on branded products, company buildings and billboard ads with some of the rather shabby, less ‘perfect’, and certainly more idiosyncratic Chilean signage of shop fronts that it displays –  we see not only Pepsi Cola, but also Coca Cola, Coors beer, Kellogs cereals, Kent cigarettes, and Texaco ‘advertised’ in this way). Prior to this, in the hotel sequence, we see the opulence of the surroundings that we have witnessed numerous times in the film before, and more fleetingly, the opulence of the other guests. After the stadium sequence we are transported to the private tennis club that provides the backdrop to David Holloway’s testimony about his friend’s disappearance: everyone is immaculately dressed, even Sissy Spacek who has earlier joked to the character played by Lemmon that she has made an extra effort to look smart. Finally, the sequence presents us with the funny, or slightly peculiar, culminating retort of Jack Lemmon to Sissy Spacek on the subject of his son and daughter-in-law’s downbeat, itinerant, and for him impoverished existence, which might recall his earlier comments in the hotel, about the American way of life with which Beth is so disillusioned, as well as numerous other remarks in the film as a whole. Money, money, money…

The hot dog remark displays once again, in the film, Jack Lemmon performing a key part of his star persona: the ridiculous irascibility bordering on neurosis of an otherwise courteous and decent, if uncomprehending, North American man. As Murray Smith indicates in another of his works on engagement with film characters, ‘The presence of a star underlines […] the “playfulness” – unreality, fictionality – of the acts we watch’.[9] The already slightly risible content of the remark and the way in which Jack Lemmon makes it even more risible in his performance, and especially its rhyming with all the other references to and representations of cash, American credit cards, wealth, and American capitalist interests in the film as a whole, bring a consistent ‘background’ motif of Missing into the film’s foreground. Here, I would argue, we have the elements that might form the material interpretants, or cues, which point to the film’s analogon, its other similar ‘story’ of money and the Chilean coup. Once you notice it (of course…), Missing is obviously about money in general and American capitalism in particular, but it is also unobtrusively about money in general and American capitalism in particular.

I want to finish with some brief, and thus necessarily sketchy remarks about the question of the film’s multiple national audiences and their possible ‘uptake’ of the stories in the foreground and the background of Missing. In an interview with Paul Willemen for Framework, and cited by Robert Stam and Ella Shohat in their book Unthinking Eurocentrism, Haile Gerima recalls the ‘crisis of identity’ provoked by the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan films series: ‘Whenever Africans sneaked up behind Tarzan we would scream our heads off, trying to warn him that ‘they'[the Africans] were coming.’[10] In his book Black Skin, White Masks, Franz Fanon also recalls Tarzan to point to what Stam and Shohat call ‘a certain instability within cinematic identification’ (p. 348):

Attend showings of a Tarzan film in the Antilles and in Europe. In the Antilles, the young Negro identifies himself de facto with Tarzan against the Negroes. This is much more difficult for him in a European theatre, for the rest of the audience, which is white, automatically identifies him with the savages on the screen.’[11]

This understanding of the material significance of viewing contexts in film interpretation may well remind us of James Monaco’s remark about the Costa-Gavras ‘syndrome’ which I cited earlier:

For any political filmmaker who wants to speak to a large audience (and this is an important differentiation) the Costa-Gavras Syndrome proves a very sticky dilemma. “Each member of the audience sees a movie with the culture, information and the character he has”. How to break through that shell? It’s not a question easily answered.[4]

Indeed, Stam and Shohat point out that ‘while disempowered communities can decode dominant programming through a resistant perspective, they can only do so to the extent that their collective life and historical memory have provided an alternative framework of understanding’ (p. 354). Unlike Jameson and Gerima in their considerations, respectively of the political conspiracy thriller and of Missing, my work, also, has at least to address the question of audience reception not only in a transnational sphere, but also in the changing political and historical contexts of the last thirty years. And this is where my dissatisfaction with Gerima’s understandable and politically expedient use of the notion of ‘Third World Peoples’ finally comes back into my frame. Even in the context of the film, the non-US actors cannot only be what Gerima would regard as ‘Third World peoples’. If we look back at his broken down list of constituent peoples we will see that he writes: ‘They will be Native Americans, Arabs, Africans and Asians.’ Although there are lots of ‘Native American’ Chileans, there are many, many more who consider themselves mestizos, of mixed race: Chileans like those whom Costa-Gavras, with his own detailed knowledge of Chile before the coup (remembering that State of Siege was filmed there), chooses to represent as the poor, or dissident people we see being shot, or dragged away, but also as the wealthy Chileans who, at the beginning of the film, are watched incredulously by Charles Horman as they clap to the arrival of tanks outside his hotel.

Beyond anecdotal discussions with friends who did see the film in Chile, I can obviously only speculate about actual audience reactions to Missing in that country, and elsewhere in Latin America, as there exists so little material on that film outside of Europe and America. But I would guess reasonably confidently that Missing circulated clandestinely in Chile during the eight remaining years of the dictatorship partly because of a general curiosity about the film, and because it was known to tell ‘a’ story about ‘their’ coup, Though the film, like all Costa-Gavras’s films set outside the US and France, does not choose to name the country in which the events it represents are taking place (characters refer to it instead as ‘down there’ and ‘down here’), and it obviously could not be filmed in Chile, the spectators who are most likely to recognise in a literal sense that it must be about this specific South American country are the inhabitants of that country. All Chileans know the fateful dates around which the film explicitly revolves in its semi-diary structure, if they were not able to pick up on the precise and deliberate resemblance of the film’s plot to the events of the coup. Many Chileans would be able to pick up on the numerous albeit abbreviated mentions of Viña del Mar where the coup was probably planned, next to Valparaíso from where it was certainly launched, as well as the names of districts in Santiago which are not changed, and the name (which is slightly altered from ‘Carrera’ to ‘Cabrera’) of the very well-known hotel in downtown Santiago where the American characters stay in the film (in any case, the first time he mentions it in the film, John Shea, playing Charles Horman, uses the actual name of the hotel). And finally there is the name of the Chilean capital city which no character utters until very near the end of the movie when the voice over to a flashback sequence refers to Charlie travelling back to Santiago with Ray Tower and then also which appears painted on the side of the coffin shown at the end of the film: ‘Charles Horman de Santiago’.

I am certain, though, that if Missing resonated in Chile in certain circles, it was because it also told a story which at least potentially can be read as an anti-American story about the coup. Most of the American characters in the film, with the exception of Charles and Beth Horman and Frank Teruggi and David Holloway defend American global ‘interests’ and the American way of life. All of the American characters exhibit, at least for large parts of the film’s duration, an American ‘ring of confidence’, concerning their personal safety or the safety of fellow Americans, a confidence which is shown to be sadly incompatible with the economic interests of their country. Charles is even called a ‘political neophyte’ and was warned off his snooping and indiscreet note taking by his Chilean friend, the more activist Silvio who would have understood that he was endangering them all with his actions. Gerima’s Gods turn out to have feet of clay. Of course, my one published Chilean viewer from period of the dictatorship, José Leal didn’t read the film in terms of what I have argued is its ‘objective or social narrative’, its critique of the self-sustaining power of American capital. But, in order not to read it in this way, he must either have overlooked the film’s ending, or perhaps been limited by censorship, or lack of word space to examine anything other than the ‘subjective’ story.

Very near the end of the film, during Ed Horman’s bitter confrontation of the US Ambassador and the American military attaché Ray Tower, overlooked as ever by a large portrait of Richard Nixon, the Ambassador accuses Horman, in a heavy hint about US complicity in the coup, of only having been awakened from his complacency about the ‘real world’ of politics because his son was involved. To Horman’s response that the US interests to which the Ambassador has referred are not his interests, the Ambassador adds: ‘Over three thousand US firms are doing business down here and those are American interests, in other words, your interests. I’m concerned with a way of life. As Ed looks out of the window at the garden empty of all he refugees he has seen at other embassies, clamouring to leave the country, he says ‘Maybe that’s why there’s nobody out there.’ The Ambassador replies ‘You can’t have it both ways’, to a speechless Ed. At the very end of the film despite Horman’s determination to sue everyone involved for their role in his son’s death ‘I’m an American… I’m from a country where we can still put people like you in jail, Lemmon’s final voiceover reveals that, after years of litigation, the information required to prove the complicity of the US State Department remained classified, and the body of his son, despite its return being promised in a few days, was not returned to the US for seven months, by which time an accurate autopsy was impossible.

To paraphrase Jameson, over the last twenty years, Chileans can probably recognise much better than ‘us,’ whoever ‘we’ are, the film’s analogous ‘stories’, not only of the impunity of which the closing voiceover speaks, but also of American economic interests. They can have it both ways. All the film’s stories can ‘compute’ within their experience: the subjective narrative resembles the now common representations of family members still seeking their disappeared loved ones; the economic story is still salient thanks to the lasting effects of Chicago-School inspired, neo-liberal economic shock to which Pinochet subjected those fellow citizens of his who survived the coup and remained in the country; and, sadly, the impunity story also continues to compute clearly today for all the wrong reasons, although that situation has much improved through all of the recent and repeated pressure to make Pinochet and others stand trial for their crimes.

 For Robert Stam and Ella Shohat, ‘A purely cognitive approach to film reception allows little space for […] differences [in socialization of resistant practices]. It does not explore how spectators can be made to identify with tales told against themselves’.[12] Perhaps only the kind of ethnographic audience work they point to, and which is only now beginning to be carried out by some Communications Studies departments in the richest Chilean universities, may be capable of helping with these matters. I doubt it, however. What is clear, and what I at least hope to have shown, is that any study of cinema in a national and historical context can only be well served by paying close attention to the important political and ethical questions raised by how films aesthetically organise their multiple audiences’ access to knowledge and affect.

Copyright 2008 by Catherine Grant 

[1] 1. Haile Gerima, ‘Triangular Cinema, Breaking Toys, and Dinknesh vs Lucy’, Questions of Third Cinema, eds. Jim Pines and Paul Willemen (London: British Film Institute, 1989), pp. 74-80.

[2] 2. José Leal, ‘Grito de libertad‘, Enfoque no. 10, 1988, p. 77 (my translation)

[3] 3. José Leal, ‘El cine camaleónico de Costa-Gavras’, Enfoque no. 15, Junio 1990, pp. 46-50.

[4] 4. James Monaco, ‘The Costa-Gavras Syndrome’, Cineaste, vol. 7, no.2, 1976, pp. 18-21, and p. 51, p. 20. Also see Guy Hennebelle, ‘Z Movies Or What Hath Costa-Gavras Wrought?,’ Cineaste, vol. 2, no.1, 1974, pp. 28-31.

[5] 5. See Fredric Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press/BFI, 1992), p. 36. Hereafter all page references will appear in the text.

[6] 6. In a footnote, Jameson also argues for the political and aesthetic merits of Missing: because of the ‘conventionality of its realism […] its political effect in the movie houses of the great North American hinterland could only be enhanced […] [Its] value therefore probably lies more in the contextual history of the period and its political issues and struggles (the resurgent right, intervention) than in the history of the form’: Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic, n. 12, p. 83.

[7] 7. See Ismail Xavier, Allegories of Underdevelopment: Aesthetics and Politics in Modern Brazilian Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

[8] 8. See also Murray Smith on ‘stick figures’: Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion and The Cinema. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p. 111. Hereafter all page references will appear in the text

[9] 9. Murray Smith, ‘Gangsters, Cannibals, Aesthetes, or Apparently Perverse Allegiances’, in Carl Plantinga & Greg M.Smith (eds), Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 217-38, p. 227.

[10] 10. Haile Gerima, interview with Paul Willemen, Framework, Nos. 7-8, Spring 1978, p. 32. Cited by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam in Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (London & New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 348. Hereafter all page references to Shohat and Stam will appear in the text[11] 11. Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967), p. 152-153).

[12] 12. Shohat and Stam also point interestingly to the existence of ‘ethnically inflected cognition’ (p. 353)

Copyright 2008 by Catherine Grant