"Argentina--Hope in Hard Times" Conversation with Filmmakers Mark Dworkin and Melissa Young
May 11, 2005
CARNEGIE COUNCIL (Madeleine Lynn): I see that you've worked together for about twenty years and you started off by doing documentaries about Central America. What brought you to Argentina in 2002?
MARK DWORKIN: We were scheduled to go to the 2002 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Melissa had spent quite a bit of time in South America many years before because she was a Fulbright graduate student; but I had never been and we didn't know if we'd ever have a chance to come back to this part of the world.
So we decided to take the opportunity to visit Chile and Argentina, largely as a vacation. We had our tickets and arrangements and had made e-mail contacts with some people in Argentina who were looking forward to meeting us.
And then Argentina's economy went into free fall at the end of 2001. There were pictures on American TV news of people pounding on the doors of banks that had been shut down. There were reports that as many as thirty people had been gunned down by the police, and of riots in the streets.
We began to rethink our vacation plans. Perhaps our hosts would find us a burden at a time like this? But when Melissa contacted them, they said, "What's happening at the moment is an aberration. Don't think that you'll be walking into a sea of chaos and danger. It will be entirely safe and we encourage you to come."
I anticipated finding a once high and noble country brought low, a very sophisticated and educated population with their spirits down in the dumps because there was 40 to 50 percent unemployment. They had after all suffered a more severe depression than what this country had been through in the 1930s.
In fact, however, we found a buoyancy of spirit and a sense of joy in the air that at first was startling and hard to understand. For me it was reminiscent of feelings I'd had during the counterculture movement in the 1960s. It was very exciting and made us want to learn more: why are people feeling this way, what is going on?
And people told us, "Yes,these are terrible times, and it's a been great shock. Many of us are desperate, some have lost their life savings or fear that their careers have come to an end." But on the other hand, people were responding by supporting each other, which conveyed a sense of hope for the future. That's why we called the film "Hope in Hard Times."
CC: So did you have all your film equipment with you?
MD: Actually, we didn't. Our major equipment package is big, heavy, and bulky and we couldn't take it on the trip. We had a brand new, very compact video camera. It's not nearly as good as the other one but it's something. (It's hard for me to go anywhere without a camera.) So we used that and some of the scenes in the film were filmed during that initial visit. But we didn't have enough time, videotape, or knowledge to attempt a documentary. So we just took some pictures of things, catch-as-catch-can, not really thinking we would make a film.
It was only after we returned to the States and continued to follow events in Argentina, that I thought about it and said: "Melissa, we have to go back. It's amazing to see so much buoyant energy; it's rare. Plus this kind of energy doesn't last all that long." As independent journalists we felt that this is the kind of story people in the States should know about.
MELISSA YOUNG: What's been interesting is that we have been thanked over and over again for making the film. We've shown this film in academic settings, in the Seattle Art Museum, at the Latino film festival in San Diego, and at quite a number of human rights festivals.
Some of the people who've thanked us were familiar with the story, but quite a few others just had no idea. It's always very satisfying as an independent journalist when you're able to cover a story that the mainstream media has neglected, which is something we see as our mission.
CC: What is the situation in Argentina now? Have you been back since you filmed this?
MD: We've been back once.
MY: We're looking forward to going back again, as we've been asked to show the film in a number of community settings in Argentina.
MD: Before we get to what's going on now — When we first knew we were going to Argentina, we got to know some Argentines who were living in Seattle. As it turned out, they were visiting family in Buenos Aires during our first trip, so they showed us around the city with great pride — it's a lovely, lovely city. So then we had a channel for following the situation more closely, because our friends were in regular touch throughout the crisis with relatives and friends by e-mail.
Our friends as well as other Argentinians have seen the film in the United States and have been quite complimentary. We were a little afraid of their reactions because we're aware of being outsiders. We're not from Argentina, we haven't studied the history of the country, and we'd never visited before the crisis occurred. Thus we find it gratifying to hear people say: "I was there during those times, and you captured the spirit remarkably."
Not that we can show Argentines their own reality, because of course they understand it better than we do. But as one person put it, "Sometimes we get amnesia. It's been a couple of years, and some things have changed since the sense of elation that got us through that time." He thought it would be exciting to remind people in Argentina of some of the spirit that had carried them forward — the spirit of mutual aid and hopefulness, when everyone was working together to construct a better future. We very much look forward to showing the film in Argentina and seeing how people respond.
We've also produced a version entirely in Spanish — we actually do that with everything we make these days. The English version has some writing at the beginning that tells the viewer the basic details about the crash. Obviously, we don't have to let people in Argentina know about that. So in the Spanish version, the writing says: "We are people from the United States who were really struck by certain things we saw in your country, and felt that your story was worth telling to people in our country."
We don't want Argentines to think that we have such arrogance that we would tell them what's going on in their own country or what they should think about it. But we are honest enough to say that these are the impressions we took away, and that we wanted to share with people back home.
MY: After the crash, there was widespread disillusionment with the nation's political leaders. You heard people saying "Que se vayan todos": "We want to get rid of all our elected officials, our president, the supreme court — everybody out."
There was an anti-political party mentality and a sense that the only thing that could save the country would be activities at the grassroots level. It's interesting because in development circles, people are talking a lot more now about the role of civil society and the need for locally based groups to play a role in determining their countries' futures.
Anyway, by the spring of 2003 there were new presidential elections and a governor of a southern province whose name is Kirchner was elected. And he has pursued kind of a center-left set of policies. He's in the big umbrella Peronist Party, but he's in a certain sector of it that people consider center-left. One of the things that he's done is continue to stand up to the IMF and the issues around debt repayment. And in fact by early this year he has been able to renegotiate a substantial part of that debt, so that they're paying something like 32 cents on the dollar.
CC: They had an enormous debt, didn't they?
MD: Yes, but per capita, it was actually smaller than the U.S. debt, although of course the gross national product per capita was less also. The great bulk of the debt was to people in other countries, just as these days an awful lot of the U.S. debt is also, to China and Japan in particular. The banking system in Argentina had been largely Argentine, but over the course of the 1990s much of it was bought up by international banks and you'd see familiar names like Citibank and Bank of Boston.
We're not economists and I don't want to get into arcane economics here, or to pass judgments. But they were encouraged to take on a lot of the debt. Joseph Stiglitz spoke while we were there. We include part of his talk in our film. In his speech, he recounted how during the 1970s especially, the banks of Europe and the United States were really encouraging countries of the global south to take on more debt and not really apprising them of the potential dangers down the road.
And he actually said that in his judgment the banks were not exercising due diligence; that they themselves were encouraging debt that wasn't wise. That they should have looked a little harder at it, just as you don't encourage someone who's making minimum wage to buy a 200,0000 house, because they won't be able to make the mortgage payments. But we don't get into those things in the film.
CC: It's my understanding that they are making a modest recovery now?
MY: They are. The last year has seen about 8 percent growth and many people believe that the policies of the current government are taking place not just because of who the elected president is, but because all this activity which happened, particularly in 2002, gave him support to stand up to the IMF.
And he has made a point of building alliances with certain sectors of the unemployed workers, of certain trade union people and of some of the recuperated factory movement. There are quite a number of factories that went bankrupt and were taken over by workers, and certain kinds of cooperatives have been important in these factories.
He revamped the judiciary, which people were very disillusioned with. They said that the judiciary was in the pocket of the moneyed class, international and national. So people didn't feel defended by their own courts. And they have also lifted amnesty for people who have committed human rights abuses under the dictatorship.
CC: That's an enormous thing.
MY: It's an enormous thing. A limited number were prosecuted immediately after the dictatorship ended, spent some time in jail but then were released under the amnesty law. We do not know if there have been prosecutions since the Kirchner government lifted that amnesty recently.
MD:There is a place that used to be a naval school. Friends of our drove us past it and said, "See that building over there? During the dictatorship they used to play military music very loudly over big loudspeakers to drown the screams of people being tortured."
Everybody knew what was happening in that building. That very building was turned over to human rights groups by this new president, Nestor Kirchner, as a symbolic act, a way of saying this is not something that we want to happen in our country again. We want this to be a museum for human rights and a memorial to the people who were killed during that period.
There are some people who say, "That doesn't necessarily solve some of the economic problems of the country." But other people say, and I agree with them, that whether it does or not, it takes away a stain and relieves a certain burden on people. It gives people some closure and in its way it's a parallel to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. It's a process that says that we want to come to terms with an ugly past and to rise above this.
One more thing about this new president — and once again without drawing the analogies too tightly, because I'm not a historian either — but there are similarities with President Franklin Roosevelt: A president who doesn't crack down on some of the social groupings, even if some of them are trying things that don't seem very orthodox, but recognizes that it's a time of crisis and if there's positive energy for change then you have to have an open mind about the form that some of it takes and encourage people to pursue it in a constructive way — not to go out killing people — and to have some innovative things happen on the part of the government to help address some of the problems.
MY: So as we understand it, things have really improved for the middle and upper classes — you know, we read stuff online and we talk to people who come and go from Argentina.
But there's still terrible trouble with unemployment, which really began heavily in the 1990s when state enterprises were privatized. Thousands and thousands of petrochemical workers lost their jobs along with many in other state industries that were privatized. Many of the services were also privatized — the gas, the telephone, the water and so on, including social security.
These are still really difficult times for the working classes and that is not resolved. Privatizing the social security system is also interesting, as we look at that possibility here. Apparently it was a significant factor contributing to the crash. But they have also re-nationalized a few of these things, such as the Post Office. So there's some progress on that front.
It's so interesting to visit a place with such a large middle class that was held up as this wonderful example of how neoliberalism is going to make us all rich, or at least pull a country forward in a substantial way that will affect everybody in the country, and to see how it looped downward into this really terrible crash.
MD: Perhaps the major reason why things have improved for professional people and less so for the factory workers is because Argentina has so many highly educated professionals. Many of them were out of work during the crisis, and so business people in other parts of Latin America said, "Wait a minute here, it's worth investing in Argentina because they have highly trained people who speak our language — most of Latin America speaks Spanish — so if we want to expand perhaps we should do it in Argentina where there's a pool of highly educated people to draw from who are unemployed right now and might be willing to work for a bit less than in the past." And so that has created opportunities for professional people.
But another thing that contributed to the economic decline — and similar things are happening in this country — is that by becoming involved in the World Trade Organization and reducing tariffs and so on, it meant that many industrial enterprises that did give decent jobs to people in the country can no longer compete with imports from China, Malaysia, and Thailand, for example. And those people aren't necessarily highly trained. If you're an investor elsewhere in the world and you're thinking of setting up a clothing factory, for example, you might consider doing it in Argentina, but it would be even cheaper to do it in Hong Kong or China.
So opportunities have improved for some more than they have for others. One strong aspect of what was exciting that has diminished somewhat is that during the time that many middle class people were suffering just like ordinary working class people, they were very sympathetic to the plight of the unemployed factory workers. They realized that that these were people like themselves who wanted to work and simply couldn't find a job.
There were middle class people who in the past had not been so sympathetic to those who were far inferior to them in terms of social status, but in the film they say, "We're all the same, we're all people, we're all human beings. We should all be equal." Nowadays, however, since many middle class people have recovered somewhat, they have a little less patience for the troublesome factory workers who still haven't got back on their feet again.
CC: And in fact for Latin America, that was truly revolutionary, surely, because there's such a rigid class system there.
MD: Historically, Argentines were considerably better off than most Latin Americans and so there was this notion among many Argentines that "We're not really Latin Americans, we're really Europeans, but somehow we got we got down here in South America." When you go around Buenos Aires, you could be in Paris or Barcelona. And likewise people in other Latin American countries would say, "Those Argentines, they're such snobs, they think they're better than we are."
Then when all this happened many Argentines were saying, "Well I guess maybe we're Latin Americans after all. We've been treated by the international system in much the same way as other Latin American countries. And so perhaps we should recognize that we are Latin Americans and accept our place and build our country where we are rather than thinking that we're sort of rich people on vacation." So they began to identify more with their fellow Latin Americans, and people in other Latin American countries who used to say that Argentines were snobs started to say "How about those Argentines, they're doing exciting stuff."
Something that's been happening a in a very serious way over the last few years and it's not only because of developments in Argentina, is that there's a lot more working together among countries of the region. There's been a resurgence of MERCOSUR a trading zone among Argentina, Paraguay Uruguay, and Brazil. Chile's an associate member, Venezuela's now become an associate member and at this very moment there's a conference in Brazil of 34 countries, the countries of South America, the Middle East and North Africa, talking about economic cooperation among them and leaving out the United States.
So often it's been the pattern that the United States is the big guy that throws its weight around or one big organization such as the United Nations does so and the vast majority of countries are unhappy with the choices that are being made. So there are concerted efforts being made right now to say, "Let's join together so that our voices can better be heard and so we won't be drowned out by the United States."
CC: Just as Europe is doing also, with the EU. That's great.
MD: I think it's great too. It's much healthier. I'm not happy with the present government of the United States so I'm even more glad that people are teaming up to find ways to strengthen one another so they don't get pushed in directions that are wrong for them. But even if I was thrilled with the present government of the United States certainly people in each country should have the free opportunity to develop their own systems. We like to hope that people will make good choices, but it's their business unless they hurt somebody else, and then it's reasonable to say, "Wait a minute here, stop". So to the extent that they're trying to find ways to work with one another to fulfill their own dreams, that seems a positive thing.
MY: I don't think we've shown the film once —and now we've shown it dozens of times publicly now — that the conversation hasn't come back around to what are the similarities in the things that led up to the crash in Argentina and some of the economic and political policies that we're seeing here in the United States today.
CC: Yes, particularly with the social security issue right now.
MY: Our film doesn't go into a lot of the details about the privatizations — we give some general background. It mainly focuses on what regular people did.
CC: I think too that middle class people in this country are realizing that they're under threat and I can understand that they would see a parallel; that it's not so impossible that they would be in that situation.
MY: Yes, it's very interesting; when you make a film you don't always know the exact way it's going to be received. We knew that people who were interested in Latin America would be interested, we expected that many of our contacts from Latin American countries who live in the United States would also find it very interesting, people working on fair trade and debt relief, specific things like that. But we found a much broader interest. I think it certainly is because people can see the similarities to the situation here.
MD: And there's another piece that I think excites people. Over recent years or even decades people have become less involved as citizens and more really as consumers. Not really participating, leaving those things to be done by somebody else. And that's one of the things that turned around quite a bit in Argentina and I hope it continues.
People actually said it to us, "We used to be like you guys. We'd just work our job and go home and watch TV and hardly know our neighbors. Then when all of this happened we realized that we had nobody to turn to except one another." And so they began to see how much they were capable of. And it's very exciting when people discover abilities they didn't even know they had. They may think, "I'm just a housewife," or "I just do this", but then they find out well I know how to organize a meeting in my community and make a childcare center together with my neighbors and it turned out well.
That's one of the things that comes up in issues of development right now. We want to urge people to participate and offer constructive ideas and suggestions. There are some viewers in this country who say, "Do you think it will take a crisis like that in our country for us to come around?" My answer is always, "I hope not, but I don't know." In Argentina they felt compelled to, because they were desperate.
CC: Well, they really had reached rock bottom.
MD: They'd reached rock bottom, and as Melissa began, they had so little confidence in their political leadership that they would usually look to. They were so disgusted. And of course, they had voted them into office, as we vote people into office in this country. They had gone along with things, thinking that'll be fine, we've elected people who will address these issues and they felt so disappointed with how things turned out and profoundly hurt. So they felt, "We can't trust these guys to solve anything. They got us into this mess and it doesn't look like they have any answers as to how to get out — what are we going to do? Can we do something in our school? Got any ideas?"
MY: And soup kitchens started up, even in middle class neighborhoods, because children were coming to school hungry.
CC: Alvaro Vargas Llosa was here recently and mentioned that 100 years ago the average per capita income in Argentina was about 70 per cent of the United States, and now it's down to 22-25 percent. He was still rather pessimistic about Argentina, actually.
MD: They certainly still have a ways to go. I have one addendum, because in the film you'll hear people being quite articulate and see people engaged in things that are very positive. We have a friend whom we became acquainted with after our first trip, a journalist who was living in Argentina during this entire period and when we returned later in 2002 she assisted us in many ways. In her neighborhood there were street corner assemblies going on, as you see in the film, and she told us, "You know, when they first happened, in the days immediately after the bank crash, it wasn't that people gathered at street corners and everybody was immediately eloquent and had good ideas. In the first couple of weeks some of the things they came out with were silly. But as people began to get in discussions with one another, they refined their ideas."
And that was a nice note of realism for me. Since at first it seemed these people are so spiritually elevated and then it turns out they're people like us. They were in a tough spot and they rose to the occasion.
CC: I'd like to ask you about what you're doing next. I see from your website that your working on a new film, about perfect children?
MY: That's one project. It's called Making Perfect People. We've made a series of half-hour documentaries that look at some of the ethical, social and environmental implications of the new genetic technology and that piece is looking at the kinds of choices people are making now with respect to prenatal genetic testing — some of the questions that come up for people, some of the different choices that they make.
In particular, we're looking at issues around what are sometimes considered disabilities or things that might be identified genetically, which might bring into question whether to bring the child to term or not. It's an interesting topic, one that comes up these days for almost every family.
CC:Yes, it's becoming more and more part of our lives. Are you looking solely at the United States?
MD: Just the United States. Personally I support a woman's right to choose, without qualification. But I do know that there are women and families who really want to have a child and they go through some tests because those are encouraged these days and they discover something isn't normal, there's an anomaly. Doctors have told us that many times the anomaly is noticed, but there's not enough knowledge in the world of genetics yet to even know what it means. They just look at something and say, "Well, that's not what we usually see."
There are some diseases where there's a clear genetic marker. Huntington's Disease, for example, which is a terrible disease. If you discover something like that, and can say, "I really understand what that means. I know what that condition would be for a child and thinking it through, looking into my heart, I don't want to bring such a child into the world," I can respect that. My big concern is when you have no idea what it might mean or when you have some indication about something but don't understand what the implications might be.
There's a woman called Barbara Katz Rothman who's looked into these issues and interviewed many families. She wrote a book called The Tentative Pregnancy: How Amniocentesis Changes the Experience of Motherhood, the sense being that women who want to have children don't consider their pregnancy to be "real" or "official" until they've had the battery of tests, because they might terminate it. That's what we're getting into now — one might use genetic testing, or abortion, or even intervening in actually modifying the genes to somehow create perfect human beings.
MY: It's kind of ironic really, because we don't believe there's such a thing as a perfect person.
MD: Actually about 90 percent of disabilities happen after birth. Katz Rothman interviewed one couple who were people of the mind — they were university professors, they enjoyed chess and so on. The woman was pregnant and a test indicated that it was likely that their child would be in a wheelchair. So they thought, "Shall we terminate this pregnancy?"
And they decided not to, because they thought, "What we want out of life might be a little more cumbersome in a wheelchair but we could still be university professors, still play chess, still read and write; it wouldn't be a terrible impediment. So we want this child and we'll accept that maybe God made this choice for us."
As it turned out, their son became a star wheelchair basketball player and so now they are driving him to sporting events — you know, the kind of thing one does for one's children — and their own lives have been changed, since now they're involved in the world of athletics and ironically wheelchair athletics, but nonetheless they're happy.
CC: So the story has a happy ending but an unexpected one.
MD: We did a bunch of filming on this a couple of years ago, we put together a sample tape and we're looking for other funding opportunities. We often work on more than one project at a time so Making Perfect People has not gone away.
But there is another future project that involves Jerry Maldonado here at the Carnegie Council. Part of our experience in Argentina encouraged us to think that nowadays many thinking people in this country and in Europe have come to the realization that the international system isn't great. There are some serious problems. One very intelligent man said to us yesterday, "We need to re-invent globalization, think about how to change some things to make it work better."
I think a lot of people have realized that. But I think a much smaller number have any sense that there could possibly be another way to do things. And if there's not any other way to do things, you can complain all you want to, but what's the point? Well, we've learned about things happening in different parts of the world that we find encouraging — different ways that things might be done.
This future project profiles some examples of socially and environmentally sustainable alternatives. They come from both the global north and south, because we don't think that all the answers lie anywhere. We want some chances to learn.
For instance, in the area around Bologna, Italy there are some remarkable networks of cooperative enterprises that are fairly small-scale and yet have very sophisticated ways of working together so they can tackle very big projects that ordinarily only a large corporation could do. They can avoid some of the pitfalls of large corporations, such as a great gulf between top and bottom, clumsy bureaucratic methods, hostility between labor and management, and so on.
And this parallels some of the work that Gerry's involved with in the GPI [Global Policy Innovations] project. He's more involved on the macro level, such as with international institutions, which is a very important part of it. As we find examples in different places that suggest that there are healthier ways to go about things, then of course the big picture matters — what are the macro institutions, what are the legal and international policies that encourage such things to flourish or what are some of the things that need to change to bring down barriers that prevent such things.
Jerry has consented to be one of our advisors. He's writing about such matters and can put us in touch with people. As we learn about things he can offer us useful observations, such as "Have you thought about these legal or international structures, how they might facilitate or not?" And he can give us some insights that we might not otherwise have.
CC:Thank you both very much.