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Photograph by Nancy Leiserowitz

Down Argentine Way: Filmmaker Bob Frei mark interviewed mothers and military men for his documentary 'Los Desaparecidos.'

Disappearing Action

Morgan Hill filmmaker Bob Freimark keeps alive the memories of Argentina's disappeared in a new documentary

By Richard von Busack

A PERIPATETIC pro-am filmmaker on four continents, Bob Freimark lives and works down a country road in Morgan Hill. Bantam roosters trot down the road's shoulders, which are still wet from the last of the spring rains. The road dead-ends into a new housing track, with the wooden skeletons of what will soon be fat minimansions.

At one of the semimarked gates--Grass Valley Studios--I found Freimark back home after completing his documentary Los Desaparecidos: The Disappeared Ones, which involved, among other things, interviewing an Argentine fascist. Freimark's backyard studio, which faces a cactus garden, houses a large piano, one of his favorite paintings and a Huichol yarn god's-eye hanging from the ceiling. Freimark is an old party with a beard that's gone Santa Claus white. Part of a faded old tattoo peeks from one sleeve.

Freimark's journey started in rural Michigan in the late 1920s, shortly after Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic. "He flew right over our house in a flight between Detroit and Chicago," Freimark remembers. "We stood in the yard, never having seen an airplane before. A couple of months later, at the Allegan County Fair, a barnstormer flew up in a biplane, and I determined to be the first kid in Allegan County to ride a plane."

Freimark, held in by a safety belt, rode along as the pilot flew upside down, doing a loop the loop over the crowd. Freimark was not only still alive when it was over but a schoolyard hero, too. "I got to school, and everyone wanted a picture of the plane. I started drawing them; they traded marbles, traps and jackknives for them. And that's how I got my start as an artist."

After a stint at the progressive art school Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan and seven years in the military, Freimark promised himself a life where he could paint outside every day of the year. "So we went down to L.A., where the weather was almost good enough; I think I missed about three days." Still not settled, Freimark moved north and taught art at San Jose State University for 15 years. Now retired, Freimark still paints, prints and sculpts; he just closed a show titled War Stories and Other Works at the Parish Gallery in Georgetown, after participating in the enormous peace march in Washington, D.C., this year.

Freimark's few films have turned up at festivals. His video Arte Cubano: Contemporary Art and Culture in Cuba takes viewers on a tour of Havana's art scene, including various galleries and collectives. The self-distributed video has turned up on the film-festival circuit; Freimark counts them off: "The Throwback Film Festival in San Francisco; it received five stars in the Always Independent Film Festival in Cincinnati; and it was invited to the New York Film Festival in 2001."

Freimark made Arte Cubano in 1998, during his tenure as artist in residency at the Museo Regla in Havana. His own connection to the art of Cuba began when he was involved with Oregon's Portland Art Museum, which hosted an International Print Exhibition. "Five hundred artists, 52 countries--and our neighbor Cuba wasn't one of them," he comments. Thus Freimark went to Cuba to document the arts.

Freimark's Cuban film had an airing at an academic conference called SECOLAS (Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies). There, he met Elsa Crites, daughter of an Argentine senator, who invited him to come south. Los Desaparecidos: The Disappeared Ones is Freimark's short film on the murders of some 30,000 people in Argentina by the military junta in the 1970s, carried out under the auspices of Operation Condor, Henry Kissinger's scheme for wiping out communism in South America.

Dirty War

At about the time America was celebrating its bicentennial, Argentina's military government was attacking anyone suspected of leftist tendencies, with Nazi-like torture and terror. The guilty have never been brought to trial, thanks to a blanket amnesty. Many of the dead have never been found.

The members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Group (named after the main square in Buenos Aires) meet weekly to petition the government for information about their children. Even an official memorial is forbidden, which is why survivors have created an unofficial one: a grove of trees called the Bosque de la Memoria in the city of Tucuman.

In Los Desaparecidos, Freimark visits the small stand of eucalyptus under a somber mist and shows us some of the inscriptions. One, for a victim named Humberto Adolfo Lizarraga, reads, "Podran cortar todas las floras, pero no podran detener le primavera [They can cut down the flowers, but they can't hold back the spring]."

"I wanted to get a permanent record of the remarks of the descendants and survivors before they succumb to old age," Freimark tells me, "since the madres are all over 75 at this point. Everyone told me how dangerous it would be: the first word was, never go anywhere alone."

While in Argentina, Freimark received two sinister late-night phone calls: "They were anonymous messages saying, 'We're glad you're here. We welcome you. Let us know how we can help you in anyway. We'll be happy to show you around."

"I knew I didn't want to interview any military until late in the game," Freimark continues. "The military's been legally absolved for the 'dirty war,' but they don't want anyone rocking the boat. Elsa had a connection, and during my last two days, I got invited to a barbecue." Freimark interviewed Cesar del Blanco, a retired commodore in the Argentine Air Force, who remains unapologetic: "There were people with ideas foreign to our way of life. ... The truth is these people got what they deserve."

"I didn't have to pump him," Freimark adds. "He told me what he knew. I was out of there the next day."

Los Desaparecidos is slated for screenings at the Dahlonega Film Festival in Atlanta, Ga., and the Hungarian Multicultural Center Film Festival at the resort area of Lake Balaton. Freimark has screened his film closer to home as well, at the Mello Center at Watsonville High School. He found a surprisingly warm reception. "I couldn't believe it, but the high school kids not only were into it, but they asked all the right questions. I told them what I'm telling you: when you get an idea, you have to be the one to go do it. Anyone else can do it, but you'll be the only one to do it right."

For information about Bob Freimark's films, go online at www.bobfreimark.com.

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From the June 5-11, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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