As Mexican filmmaker Paula Markovitch can attest, childhood experiences can linger on for years and insinuate themselves into your soul.
In her debut feature film, The Prize, which screened at the recent Toronto Jewish Film Festival, Markovitch drew on her past for inspiration.
“It is a film about memory,” she said. “Not about the facts that happened, but as I remember them.”
The Prize is set in Argentina – where she was born – in the 1970s. The military, having staged a coup d’etat, launched a violent campaign to rid the country of left-wing dissidents.
During the Dirty War epoch (1976-83), Argentina was under siege as people disappeared, never to be seen again. There was fear in the air as the rule of law fell by the wayside.
Amid this uncertainty, Lucie Adelstein, a dissenter, and her seven-year-old daughter, Cecelia, flee Buenos Aires for a life of self-imposed exile in a remote corner of Argentina.
They live in a simple cabin on the sand dunes of a desolate stretch of beach facing a raw sea. “We’re here because they want to find us,” says Lucie.
Lucie, played by Laura Agorreca, keeps a low profile, rarely venturing from the safety of the beach. She is so fearful of being arrested that she instructs Cecelia (Paula Galinelli Hertzog) to lie, to tell schoolmates that her mother is a housekeeper and that her father is a curtain salesman.
Lucie’s efforts to conceal their identity seem threatened when Cecelia wins the first prize in an essay contest sponsored by the Argentine army. In her essay, Cecelia writes that soldiers killed her older cousin, a tipoff that may imperil their lives.
The Prize is based on real incidents, said Markovitch, 44, who settled in Mexico when she was 22.
“We lived on the beach,” she said. “But not only my mother and me. My father lived with us. The absence of my father in the film makes it more appealing.”
Markovitch’s parents were artists and socialists who moved in intellectual circles and opposed the junta.
During this grim era, when human rights were regularly flouted by the regime, virtually anyone with ideals and convictions could be kidnapped, tortured and murdered, she observed.
“We all lived in fear,” said Markovitch, “Not only political activists. Everyone. No one was exempt. The entire society was affected.”
Markovitch, whose grandparents were Polish Jews from Warsaw who arrived in Argentina after World War I, emigrated after the restoration of democracy. “I left for personal reasons, without my family, after the dictatorship ended.”
Starting in the mid-1990s, she began writing scripts for Mexican films and television shows. “I have been a writer since I was a child. My fascination with film comes from literature.”
Markovitch made two short films before making The Prize.
Much to her satisfaction, it has been accepted at a succession of movie festivals, including the Jerusalem Film Festival, and has been positively received by critics and audiences alike.
But The Prize is not the first film about the subject of the Dirty War.
“There have been many films about that period,” she said, noting that when a crime is committed and pain is inflicted, filmmakers gravitate toward that topic.