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Memory and National Identity in "The Official Story" (Puenzo, 1985)

In research studies, the significance of acquiring diverse sources of information cannot be overstated (Zelizer, 1995; Balderston, 2010; Geise, 2013). Both qualitative and quantitative investigations rely on accessing valid sources to comprehensively grasp a case and its repercussions (Zelizer, 1995; Balderston, 2010; Geise, 2013). Often, methodologies focus on narratives shared by individuals, providing insights into specific historical moments, elucidating experiences, and their enduring impacts (Poole, 2008; Erll, 2011b; Geise, 2013). These narratives, essentially personal recollections, serve as vital conduits through which researchers can construct a nuanced understanding of past events (Zelizer, 1995; Poole, 2008; Erll, 2011b; Geise, 2013). Scholars provide glimpses into the lived experiences of individuals, enriching the comprehension of historical occurrences (Zelizer, 1995; Poole, 2008; Erll, 2011b; Geise, 2013). Such recollections coalesce to form narratives, offering varied perspectives on past events (Zelizer, 1995; Poole, 2008; Erll, 2011b; Geise, 2013; Thomas, 2020).

Indeed, there exists a field of research that underscores the intrinsic value of memories in preserving the past (Zelizer, 1995; Poole, 2008; Balderston, 2010; Erll, 2011b; Geise, 2013). Through the lens of individuals who witnessed events firsthand, memories imbue historical recollections with a vividness that transcends academic analysis (Poole, 2008; Erll, 2011b). These memories urge us to remain aware of the past and glean lessons to avert the repetition of past mistakes (Erll, 2011b; Geise, 2013). In essence, these memories facilitate a reimagining of the past, encapsulating the temporal and spatial dimensions of historical facts (Zelizer, 1995; Poole, 2008; Balderston, 2010; Erll, 2011b; Geise, 2013). They underscore the imperative to heed the lessons of history and forge a path forward informed by collective remembrance and understanding (Zelizer, 1995; Poole, 2008; Balderston, 2010; Erll, 2011b; Geise, 2013).

Some memories are transformed into movies and various forms of media, visually depicting historical events (Zelizer, 1995). These representations are grounded in the recollections of citizens and other participants, enabling present-day audiences to grasp their collective past (Zelizer, 1995; Poole, 2008; Balderston, 2010; Erll, 2011b; Geise, 2013; Tamm, 2013; Thomas, 2020). By preserving memories in this manner, we safeguard our history from fading into oblivion (Zelizer, 1995; Poole, 2008).

Moreover, it offers insights into how different political and social circumstances have shaped society (Zelizer, 1995; Erll, 2011b). This act of remembering through visual storytelling illuminates our past and sheds light on the economic, social, and political ramifications often overlooked as time passes (Zelizer, 1995; Balderston, 2010; Geise, 2013; Tamm, 2013). Consequently, this article will underscore the significance of memory studies as a means to preserve the past, particularly in understanding historical political, and social contexts. It will delve into an examination of the film "The Official Story"(1985), a significant portrayal of Argentine history post-1976, offering invaluable insights into the political realities of that era (Puenzo, 1985). This article aims to delve into the historical narrative of the country, highlighting the role of memories in preserving this past and ensuring it remains accessible to all. It explores the creation of media that vividly represents the diverse experiences of individuals during specific periods, shedding light on the far-reaching consequences of these events.


An Exploration of Memory Studies and National Identity

Nations possess rich histories that deeply shape their collective identity and influence the behaviors of their population (Poole, 2008; Balderston, 2010; Erll, 2011b; Geise, 2013; Thomas, 2020). At each juncture of history, citizens feel a profound connection to their past, viewing it as integral to their sense of self (Poole, 2008; Balderston, 2010; Geise, 2013). The acknowledgment and shared understanding of this past serve as a cultural imperative, fostering a sense of belonging and solidarity within communities (Geise, 2013). Through this shared history, individuals find common ground, forming bonds that overcome individual differences (Balderston, 2010; Geise, 2013). Central to the cohesion of a nation is the cultivation of a shared national culture and a collective memory within a shared territorial heritage (Balderston, 2010; Geise, 2013). These elements play a crucial role in unifying the population, providing a framework through which individuals can forge a sense of belonging and communal identity (Balderston, 2010; Geise, 2013; Tamm, 2013) Within this context, people coexist, exchanging ideas about the future while remaining grounded in their shared past (Erll, 2011b; Geise, 2013; Thomas, 2020).

Although interpretations of history may vary, the essence of national identity lies in the collective memory it engenders (Geise, 2013; Tamm, 2013; Thomas, 2020). Despite differing perspectives, the national community tends to agree on fundamental aspects of its past, contributing to a cohesive narrative that binds citizens together (Poole, 2008; Balderston, 2010; Geise, 2013). Hence, national identity is intricately woven with the collective memory of the past as recounted by its citizens (Poole, 2008; Balderston, 2010; Geise, 2013). These memories serve as threads in the tapestry of history, illuminating perspectives previously overlooked (Zelizer, 1995). Engaging in this act of recollection, research becomes akin to solving a complex puzzle, where every piece is indispensable to comprehending a shared past (Zelizer, 1995; Poole, 2008; Balderston, 2010; Erll, 2011b; Geise, 2013).

In her article on memory studies and the past published in 1995, Barbie Zelizer explores the unique nature of memory. Rather than just recollection, remembering is viewed as the nuanced ability to retrieve events from the past (Zelizer, 1995; Erll, 2011b). This concept raises fundamental questions about the nature of memory itself: what constitutes memory, its various forms, its completeness, and its authenticity (Zelizer, 1995). While originating from individual minds, memories can be inherently unreliable, yet they remain crucial for acknowledging historical truths (Zelizer, 1995). However, to establish their validity, memories must undergo scrutiny, leading to further inquiries about the identity of those who remember and the motives behind their recollections (Zelizer, 1995). Indeed, memories often fade or become distorted over time, yet this internal process remains deeply intertwined with personal perspectives and lived experiences (Zelizer, 1995). Zelizer (1995) highlights that it is through our memories that people find a connection to the broader world, bridging individual narratives with collective experiences. Consequently, individual memories play a crucial role in shaping collective memory, ultimately influencing national identity (Zelizer, 1995; Poole, 2008; Balderston, 2010; Geise, 2013).

From this perspective, memories are indispensable for comprehending the past and challenging our preconceptions (Zelizer, 1995; Poole, 2008; Balderston, 2010; Geise, 2013). Particularly, the past few decades have witnessed the emergence of what Jay Winter (2001) calls a memory boom. In his 2001 exploration of contemporary historical studies, Winter elucidates how current generations utilize memory for various acts of remembrance. Memory has evolved into an essential tool for understanding history, linking present recollections with past events to prevent their fading into obscurity (Winter, 2001; Erll, 2011a). Winter (2001) further contends that this surge in memory also shapes identity politics and manifests globally as a strategic tool for preserving the past. In regions like Latin America, for instance, testimonial literature emerges as a means to reclaim histories suppressed under military dictatorships (Winter, 2001). Through mediums like media and literature, authors convey their own experiences and amplify the voices of those silenced by oppression (Winter, 2001). These narratives are subsequently collected and disseminated, ensuring their resonance across time and space (Winter, 2001).

However, amidst this proliferation of memory, there exists a risk of hazy recollections blurring the lines between truth and fiction (Winter, 2001). Nonetheless, as Zelizer (1995) elucidated, there are methodologies to discern the authenticity of these memories, ensuring their enduring significance in shaping our understanding of history. Hence, memories are vital for comprehending the past and shaping present beliefs, enabling citizens to connect with national culture and acknowledge their historical roots (Zelizer, 1995; Winter, 2001; Balderston, 2010; Erll, 2011b; Geise, 2013). As previously noted, in regions like Latin America, memory holds particular significance in the reclamation of narratives silenced during periods of military dictatorship (Winter, 2001). These suppressed histories find expression through various forms of media, and in this article, the focus will be on filmmaking, particularly examining the case of Argentina.


Explaining the case of Argentina and introducing the movie The Official Story

To delve deeper into the subsequent section, it is crucial to underscore that collective memory in its fundamental levels demands a historical consciousness (Zelizer, 1995). This consciousness resides in the interstice between the official narrative of the past and the realities of the present moment (Zelizer, 1995; Erll, 2011b; Thomas, 2020). Within this framework of collective memory, individuals contemplate the past while simultaneously projecting their current selves onto it (Zelizer, 1995; Thomas, 2020). From this vantage point, our present understanding of historical events is intrinsically tied to self-reflection (Zelizer, 1995). When examining the case of Argentina through the lens of "The Official Story" (Puenzo, 1985) movie, it is imperative to recognize that the perspectives portrayed are those of individuals who experienced the events firsthand. While the medium of film inherently introduces elements of fiction, it nonetheless offers a portrayal of the events of the 1970s and how they are remembered by the people (Puenzo, 1985; Heffes & Bertone, 2016; Kristensen, 2020).

Since 1976, Argentina endured its final civic-military dictatorship, marked by numerous human rights violations that often remained concealed for decades (Heffes & Bertone, 2016; Kristensen, 2020; Thomas, 2020). The regime was born from a coup d’état orchestrated by the Armed Forces and socially conservative factions, toppling previous authorities and ushering in an authoritarian rule characterized by illegitimate measures (Kristensen, 2020; Thomas, 2020). This period witnessed the implementation of a systematic campaign of State terrorism, including abduction, torture, forced disappearances, and the abduction of infants, with subsequent erasure of their identities (Heffes & Bertone, 2016; Kristensen, 2020; Thomas, 2020). Lasting until 1983, the dictatorship orchestrated a campaign of state-sponsored terror resulting in thousands of deaths and countless cases of torture, with many victims buried in unmarked graves (Kristensen, 2020; Thomas, 2020).

Against this historical backdrop, "The Official Story" (Puenzo, 1985) unfolds in the waning year of the military dictatorship (Puenzo, 1985; Heffes & Bertone, 2016). The protagonist, Alicia, hailing from an affluent background, initially remains oblivious to the widespread suffering engulfing her country (Puenzo, 1985; Heffes & Bertone, 2016). From her privileged perspective, only the guilty seem to face arrest; however, the film serves as a journey of self-discovery for Alicia as she grapples with uncovering the truth and confronting collective memories from diverse perspectives (Puenzo, 1985; Heffes & Bertone, 2016). Emerging from this background, Alicia assumes the role of a high school history teacher, while her husband holds a government position (Puenzo, 1985). Together, they care for their 5-year-old adopted daughter, Gaby (Puenzo, 1985). Despite her profession, Alicia remains oblivious to the origins of Gaby and the tumultuous events unfolding in her country (Puenzo, 1985). In a classroom confrontation, one of her students challenges the legitimacy of government-issued textbooks, labeling their authors as murderers—a perspective that baffles Alicia (Puenzo, 1985). Scholars in International Law, Heffes and Bertone (2016), conducted a study on the film "The Official Story" (Puenzo, 1985), aiming to contextualize it within the landscape of post-dictatorship Argentinian cinema. The title itself alludes to the notion of an 'official story,' suggesting a definitive account of historical events (Heffes & Bertone, 2016). However, the scholars propose that within the context of Argentina's dictatorship period, there exist multiple perspectives on what constitutes the true narrative (Heffes & Bertone, 2016). Alicia, the protagonist, initially adheres to and propagates what she perceives as the official narrative (Heffes & Bertone, 2016). Yet, her conviction waivers as she encounters challenges from her students and the changing dynamics of her environment (Heffes & Bertone, 2016). Consequently, the concept of the 'official story' becomes malleable, subject to reinterpretation and evolution (Heffes & Bertone, 2016).

The narrative takes another turn when Ana, a friend returning from exile, recounts her experiences of captivity and torture, shedding light on the brutality of the regime (Puenzo, 1985). This revelation stirs doubts within Alicia, particularly regarding the adoption of her daughter (Puenzo, 1985). Despite her growing curiosity, her husband dismisses her concerns, urging her to abandon those inquiries and accept that the adoption of Gaby was normal (Puenzo, 1985). This divergence in perspectives further fuels her determination to unearth the truth about the past of her daughter, even as she faces resistance from those closest to her (Heffes & Bertone, 2016; Kristensen, 2020).

As the film progresses, Alicia learns the truth surrounding the origins of her daughter and the atrocities committed by the regime (Puenzo, 1985; Heffes & Bertone, 2016). She becomes acquainted with an organization dedicated to locating missing children, uncovering the reality of how the military forcibly separated families and placed abducted babies up for adoption (Puenzo, 1985; Heffes & Bertone, 2016; Kristensen, 2020). In one encounter, Alicia meets Sara, who reveals herself to be the grandmother of Gaby (Puenzo, 1985). Alicia learns that the biological mother of her child was likely murdered, and Gaby was subsequently taken and given to Alicia and her husband (Puenzo, 1985). She realizes that her understanding of history in her surroundings is tainted by privilege (Heffes & Bertone, 2016; Kristensen, 2020). It portrays the actions of the regime as just and equitable while demonizing those who opposed it (Heffes & Bertone, 2016; Kristensen, 2020).

Kristensen (2020) builds upon her research on the representation of dictatorship in films to highlight the significance of "The Official Story" (Puenzo, 1985) in initiating discourse on the kidnapping of children and their subsequent adoption by affluent families. The film sheds light on a troubling aspect of history, revealing that many, like Alicia, were unaware of the origins of their adopted children (Kristensen, 2020). This revelation underscores the complexities and hidden truths surrounding the dictatorship era, as portrayed in the film (Kristensen, 2020). However, Alicia comes face to face with the contrast between her narrative and the daily horrors experienced by countless families (Heffes & Bertone, 2016). For them, the dictatorship was a violent era marked by the wrenching loss of loved ones and the constant threat of captivity and torture (Heffes & Bertone, 2016). As such, the journey of Alicia exposes the other side of society, where the memories of brutality endure as a testament to the cost of dictatorship (Heffes & Bertone, 2016).

Memories Retelling the Truth of the Dictatorship

This film is one of many that delve into the last dictatorship period of Argentina, drawing from the memories of its producers and other individuals (Heffes & Bertone, 2016; Kristensen, 2020). It aims to highlight the diverse recollections of the populace, shaped by their social status and political leanings, ultimately portraying a shared narrative of Argentine history (Heffes & Bertone, 2016). Alicia, belonging to a privileged class, initially remains blinded to the harsh realities experienced by others (Heffes & Bertone, 2016). However, as she engages with different perspectives, she inches closer to the truth (Heffes & Bertone, 2016). The analysis of Kristensen (2020) underscores how the truth, revealed throughout the narrative, challenges Alicia's initial perspective on the official story. This shift in understanding brings her closer to the actual events that took place during the dictatorship era (Kristensen, 2020). For many, memories are imbued with the anguish of torture, the loss of loved ones, and the ongoing search for justice (Heffes & Bertone, 2016). Even today, these memories serve as sources of information for unresolved cases of the disappeared (Heffes & Bertone, 2016; Kristensen, 2020; Thomas, 2020). It is a testament to the collective determination to preserve history (Heffes & Bertone, 2016; Kristensen, 2020). Works like "The Official Story" (Puenzo, 1985) and other media draw upon these memories to chronicle the past, contributing to the collective memory of nations and the legacy of dictatorship (Heffes & Bertone, 2016; Kristensen, 2020; Thomas, 2020).

Individual memories play a crucial role in constructing a narrative of past events (Geise, 2013; Heffes & Bertone, 2016; Kristensen, 2020; Thomas, 2020). In the context of Argentine history depicted in the film, the protagonist pieces together various experiences, gaining insight into the diverse ways in which people were affected by the regime (Heffes & Bertone, 2016; Kristensen, 2020). This exploration also extends to the past of her daughter, previously shrouded in mystery (Heffes & Bertone, 2016; Kristensen, 2020). Moreover, the film delves into memories that could aid in locating the disappeared, offering potential solace to families and communities still dealing with the aftermath (Erll, 2011a; Heffes & Bertone, 2016). Gaby, the adopted daughter of the protagonist, becomes a symbol of the countless children torn from their original families during this dark period, robbed of their true identities (Heffes & Bertone, 2016; Kristensen, 2020). For many, growing up amid the dictatorship meant losing their childhoods and struggling to understand their reality (Kristense, 2020). While numerous narratives of the dictatorship remained suppressed, the resurgence of memories and stories ensures that they are not consigned to oblivion (Geise, 2013; Heffes & Bertone, 2016; Kristensen, 2020; Thomas, 2020).

Bibliographical References

Balderston, D. (2010). Argentina: Stories for a Nation. Hispanic review, 78(1), 125-127.

Erll, A. (2011a). Locating family in cultural memory studies. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 42(3), 303-318.

Erll, A. (2011b). Travelling Memory. Parallax, 17:4, 4-18, DOI: 10.1080/13534645.2011.605570

Geise, M. (2013). Memories of the Past, Images of the Present: National Identity and Contested Memorial Narrative in Argentina (Bachelor's thesis).

Heffes, A. & Bertone, A. (2016). En el país de nomeacuerdo: Revisitando el film La Historia oficial. Aletheia, 6 (12). In Memoria Académica. Available in:

Kristensen, H. (2020). The Representation of the Last Dictatorship in Argentine Cinema. CISLA Senior Integrative Projects, 11. Available in:

Poole, R. (2008). Memory, history, and the claims of the past. Memory studies, 1(2), 149-166.

Puenzo, L. (Film Director). (1985). La historia oficial [Film]. Historias Cinematográficas; Progress Communications.

Tamm, M. (2013). Beyond history and memory: New perspectives in memory studies. History Compass, 11(6), 458-473.

Thomas, T. J. (2020). Film and the Culture of Memory in Argentina. Undergraduate Honors Thesis. 71. Available on:

Winter, J. (2001). The generation of memory: reflections on the “memory boom” in contemporary historical studies. Canadian Military History, 10(3), 5.

Zelizer, B. (1995). Reading the past against the grain: The shape of memory studies. Critical studies in mass communication, 12, 214-214.

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Dane Prins

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