Ryan Suffern stumbled upon an ideal documentary subject when he heard about Oscar Ramírez, a young man in Massachusetts who discovered that, as a child, he was a rare survivor of one of the most horrific massacres of Guatemala’s three-decade long civil war. With the assistance of human rights organizations and the USC Shoah Foundation, together with the blessings of executive producer Steven Spielberg, Suffern set out to tell the disturbing story of Guatemala’s bloody past, knowing that the hook offered by Oscar ensured an irresistible emotional pull even for those with little interest in Central American politics. The result, “Finding Oscar,” is a standard-issue piece of heart-tugging reportage better suited to small screens than art houses.
The structure makes it easy to follow, mixing talking heads with straightforward footage shot in Guatemala and elsewhere that contextualizes the militarization of the country and then focuses on the 1982 massacre in Dos Erres, where the bodies of 162 adults and 67 children were tossed into the village well. Earlier that year, General Efraín Ríos Montt seized control of the government, instituting a crackdown on left-wing political opponents that received the blessing of the Reagan administration — when Reagan paid a visit to Guatemala, he praised Ríos Montt as a man of “great personal integrity,” much like Trump’s recent declaration that Egypt’s dictator Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has done “a fantastic job.”
In that Cold War era when U.S. policy supported any right-wing coup as long as it suppressed perceived communist threats, strong men like Ríos Montt felt they had carte blanche to eliminate enemies in whatever way they saw fit, so under a scorched earth policy, the General’s feared Kaibil forces had impunity to do what was deemed necessary. The entire village of Dos Erres disappeared, but only when Famdegua, an organization of victims’ families, began calling attention to this and other massacres did anyone pay attention. A half-hearted official investigation began after a 1996 peace agreement ended the conflict, yet even then, the government had little interest in pursuing justice.
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However, a few dogged citizens like Aura Elena Farfán, Famdegua’s executive director, were determined to find out what happened and hold the perpetrators accountable. Farfán was incredibly lucky in that two members of the Kaibil unit involved in Dos Erres, Fabio Pinzón Jerez and Cesar Ibañez, wanted to talk, and through them she learned not just the stomach-churning details of the massacre, but that two young boys were taken away by soldiers. Here’s where Suffern shifts the documentary into a sort of TV investigation as Farfán, prosecutors, forensic anthropologists, and others search for traces of the two missing children.
The trail leads from Guatemala to Florida, where former Kaibil soldiers live, and on to Framingham and Winnipeg, for expectedly emotional moments that Suffern builds with teary conviction. There’s even a catharsis of sorts, a bittersweet reunion likely to moisten many eyes. As a story, “Finding Oscar” has all the necessary ingredients for a riveting experience, yet the execution is more earnest than inspiring in all but the most predictable ways (for more profoundly incisive looks at the nightmare of Guatemala’s recent past, it’s best to check out Juan Manuel Sepulveda’s “Lessons for a War” and Pamela Yates’ two docs, “When the Mountains Tremble” and “Granito”).
The visuals are formulaic, though at least that means they don’t sensationalize the unfathomable cruelty of the right-wing dictatorship, when as many as 200,000 civilians were killed. However, Paul Pilot and John Stirratt’s music, with its driving electric guitar, is a dreadful accompaniment to the testimony of survivors speaking of their murdered loved ones.