“Finding Oscar”


            This documentary is tough to watch, even for those of us who have acquired a special interest in, and personal experience with, the war-ravaged Central American country of Guatemala. 

            The Guatemalan Civil War lasted from 1960 to 1996.  That much is not in dispute.  What is not so widely agreed upon are the root causes of the war, and why it began in the first place.  There was a coup d'etat by the military against a democratically-elected government, and many commentators insist that the United States backed the military rebels, because of the Cold War mentality of attempting to counter leftist (Marxist) governments, both in Guatemala and in Cuba.

            We all know what happened at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, when U.S.-backed rebels failed to topple Fidel Castro's revolutionary government in Cuba.  What is not so clear is the U.S.'s involvement in backing the Guatemalan military, which began systematically eliminating indigenous people perceived to be enemies of the State.

            “Finding Oscar” points to a particularly horrific brutality, the wiping out of a whole village, Dos Erres, in 1982, by a military hit squad, “The Kaibil,” patterned after the U.S. military's Special Forces.  This documentary film can't show us footage of the actual massacre, of course.  But it does show us archival footage of President Ronald Reagan meeting with the military dictator and promising continuing unqualified support.

            Then we are taken to the abandoned well of Dos Erres, where scores of skeletons were found, but still no eyewitnesses, because there were no known survivors.  Until a determined Forensics Anthropologist teamed with a zealous prosecutor and a local human rights activist to actually find a couple of Kaibil soldiers connected with the slaughter.  One was a cook, the other an enlisted man, who both admitted their own participation (in exchange for immunity from prosecution).  They told how children were killed by being hit on the head with a sledgehammer, then thrown down the well.  They told of the raping of the women and the beating of the men, before they, too, were killed.  Somehow two boys escaped, and ironically, were adopted by a couple of Kaibil soldiers who later emigrated.  These boys were actually found.  One now lives in Canada, and still breaks down in tears every time he remembers what he saw that day.  The other, Oscar, lives in Framington, Massachusetts, and had no idea.  The person he thought was his Dad died in a car accident years ago.  He's now married with a family of his own.  But Oscar was flabbergasted to discover that he was actually an orphan boy adopted by one of the dreaded Kaibil executioners.  It also so happened that Oscar's real Dad also escaped the massacre, because he was out working in the fields at the time, though he lost everyone else in his family.  Or so he thought.  The tearful reunion between Oscar and his Dad in the airport is as satisfying to the viewer as it is euphoric for them.

            We may never know how many civilians were killed in that tragic civil war which nobody in Guatemala seems to want to talk about now.  And we may never found out, literally, where all the skeletons are buried.  But we have found Oscar.  And he, at least, has found out who he really is.


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  What are the risks of the U.S. government backing revolutions in other countries?

2)                  Should the U.S. government be backing the Iraqi government against native insurgents?

3)                  How would it affect you if you found out that you didn't come from the family who raised you?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association