A Search for Justice
Directed by Ryan Suffern, “Finding Oscar” is a feature-length documentary about the search for justice in the devastating case of the Dos Erres massacre in Guatemala. That search leads to the trail of two little boys who were plucked from a nightmare and offer the only living evidence that shows the Guatemalan government’s part in the massacre.
In 1982, the village of Dos Erres in Guatemala was given the “scorched earth” treatment by a special operations unit of the Guatemalan Army, the Kaibiles. All of its villagers (men, women, and children) were murdered. Some were executed and thrown down a well and others were thrown into the well while still alive. Before their deaths, the women were raped and forced to cook for the captors. The only survivors of the massacre (aside from villagers who weren’t present) were two young boys, ages 3 and 5, Oscar Ramirez and Ramiro Cristales. This documentary is a harrowing telling of the Dos Erres massacre, the search for justice, and the search for Oscar, an important missing link in the story.
The events are recounted via talking heads by relatives of those massacred in Dos Erres and by those looking to put the pieces together. Among them are forensic anthropologist Freddy Peccerelli and human rights prosecutor Sara Romero. Peccerelli and his team exhume the bodies and piece them together so that the surviving relatives may give them proper burials and provide some form of closure. Sara Romero gathers information for a case in which she hopes to provide justice for the victims and their families. The information she has gathered comes from two former soldiers of the Kaibil special operations unit of the Guatemalan army.
One of the men was a cook for the Kaibiles and he shares about two boys that were spared and taken by two soldiers to their families and raised as part of those families. One boy is Oscar, who was 3 years old when taken and had no memory of the massacre or of his former family. The other boy, Ramiro, was 5 and memory of the massacre fully intact, and he is able to recount with stomach-churning detail what befell the villagers, including his mother and little sister. It takes a decade and more confessions and corroborations are had before the case is strong enough to not be tossed out. And the final detail is Oscar.
Finding Oscar is the main thread in this documentary. It’s not just about corroboration, but about bringing together loose ends and telling someone their history— telling someone that he is not who he thinks he is; telling someone his family was wiped out by a man who was looked at as a father and a hero. When Oscar is finally found, we get a story that is both heartwarming and melancholy. It’s a reconnect with father and son that no one expected. And in the end of it all, justice is served as Oscar travels back to Guatemala from the United States to give his testimony. Soldiers are sentenced and the former President Efrain Rios Montt is brought to face his crimes as well.
I had no knowledge of the long civil war in Guatemala so “Finding Oscar” taught me something new. “Finding Oscar” takes in the history of Guatemala’s recovery from its civil war, the process of searching for the disappeared and identifying remains, and the stories of other children who were taken after their parents were killed. The film includes testimony from participants in the massacre, some of which is extremely harrowing – but surprisingly, there are also moments here that may make you joyfully weep.
The picture presented is a complex one with a significant international dimension. Ronald Reagan’s government in the US provided funding to the side responsible for the massacre, which went on to dominate post-war society, making justice impossible for many years. Partway through the film, it emerges that Oscar has become an illegal immigrant in the US, complicating the business of searching for him still further. He’s not an obvious immigrant, because he has light colored skin and green eyes which saved his life in the village because he stood out from the more obviously indigenous children there. There’s evidence that the massacre was considered as part of a program of extermination.
The documentary includes archive footage, interviews, observational film of key moments and illustrative footage from the locations where events unfolded, including the field where the well with the bodies was found (a place which remained dangerous to visit for decades). This is a small documentary about a terrible incident in a country that doesn’t command a lot of attention on the world stage but director Suffern has put together a documentary that has widespread relevance and the ability to connect with viewers from all backgrounds. It’s a stunning piece of work.