Academic journal article ARIEL

Invisible Victims, Visible Absences: Imagining Disappearance for an International Audience

Academic journal article ARIEL

Invisible Victims, Visible Absences: Imagining Disappearance for an International Audience

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article compares the representations of disappearance in Costa-Gavras' 1982 film Missing and Michael Ondaatje's 2000 novel Anil's Ghost. Written at distinct historical moments, the two texts reflect the evolving discourses of internationalism that inform their production and reception. Although each succeeds, to an extent, in bringing the disappeared to life through fictional representation, the essay argues that they are more meaningfully marked by their failures than their successes: the constitutive silences that make certain victims legible while relegating others to invisibility.

The violence of disappearance is both physical and epistemic. The human rights organization Amnesty International defines the disappeared as "people who have been taken into custody by agents of the state, yet whose whereabouts and fate are concealed, and whose custody is denied" (Disappearances and Political Killings 84). Victims of disappearance are often arrested without notice and detained in secret facilities; if they are killed, their deaths are concealed, and their remains are often disposed of anonymously. Many of the disappeared never "reappear" to tell their story; thus, it falls to others to reclaim their identities and re-inscribe them in the public discourse. Fictional works such as Costa-Gavras' 1982 film Missing and Michael Ondaatje's 2000 novel Anil's Ghost rely on the strategies of realist narrative to bring the disappeared to life for distant audiences and to fill the gaps and silences that disappearance imposes. Narratives such as these respond to the impulse to make victims visible and recognizable, both in order to intercede on their behalf and to bring the perpetrators of systematic violence to account. But these texts are also marked by their own limitations: the forms of privilege they fail to recognize and the victims who elude their representational frames.

Alice Nelson explains that "[f]rom the moment of their disappearance, missing people were relegated to a perverse limbo in which the state not only denied their deaths, but also attempted to negate their lives by claiming that the disappeared never existed" (50; emphasis in original). Despite the absence of documentable evidence, however, victims of disappearance "did continue to exist through the ways in which other people reconstructed them discursively, by telling stories that bore witness to those individuals' lives within a community" (50). Circulated abroad, beyond the reach of official censorship, depictions of the disappeared hold the promise of not only counteracting the erasure that disappearance attempts to carry out, but marshalling international support for the victims of violent conflicts and inspiring political or legal action on their behalf.' These narratives are thus works of recovery, which attempt to reconstruct the disappeared from fragmentary records as emotionally real, three-dimensional individuals, and strategic works of invention, which strive to make the disappeared legible as victims to international audiences. As Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith remind us, narratives of human rights abuses are inherently shaped by the contexts of their production, circulation, and reception; they invite us to consider how "modes of circulation impact upon the expectations of the teller, the structure of the story, and the mode of address to different kinds of audiences," as well as the ways in which "contexts of reception direct and contain the ethical call of stories and their appeals for redress" (6). Taken together, Costa-Gavras' Missing and Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost provide a snapshot of the changing political and cultural contexts within which representations of disappearance have circulated.

Released in 1982, Missing tells the story of Charles Horman, an American expatriate who disappeared during the early days of Chile's 1973 coup. (2) Both Costa-Gavras' depiction of the coup and the historical event itself are powerful reflections of the Cold War context that shaped them. …

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