Living a lie, and not knowing it

Times Staff Writer

When Gaston Biraben was a boy growing up in Argentina, he used to go over to a friend’s, whose sister would often greet him at the door.

“Suddenly, she wasn’t there anymore,” Biraben recalled recently. “When I asked what happened to her, my friend wouldn’t tell me the truth. He was very afraid. He’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, she’s not here.’ ”

Years later, Biraben would learn the stark truth. His friend’s sister had vanished without a trace during the “dirty war” waged by the 1976-83 military junta that, human rights activists say, left as many as 30,000 dead or “disappeared.”


Now a resident of Los Angeles, Biraben journeyed back to his homeland to film the tragic story of children whose parents had been sent to forced labor camps and were presumed murdered because of their criticism of the regime.

In his sobering drama “Cautiva” (in Spanish with English subtitles), which opened Friday at Laemmle theaters in Beverly Hills and Pasadena, Biraben, who wrote and directed, tells the story of Cristina, an Argentine teenager in a well-to-do family in Buenos Aires. The girl’s life is suddenly upended when she is plucked out of her classroom and taken to the offices of a judge, who tells her that her parents aren’t really her parents.

In recent years, Argentina has witnessed the tragic real-life stories of children who, like Cristina, were forced to confront the horrible news that they had been taken as babies, given false birth certificates and handed over to strangers to raise as their own.

“Now the count is 85,” Biraben said, reciting the number of children who have been tracked down by surviving relatives. “When I made the movie, it was 74.” He said in all there were likely 500 children who were victims of “appropriation,” as the adoptions are chillingly called. Today these children would be in their 20s and 30s.

Biraben, whose early interest in film began when his parents gave him a tiny camera at age 10, went on to study cinema in Buenos Aires and later moved to the U.S., where he attended the American Film Institute’s directing program. His script of “Cautiva” was a finalist at the Sundance Institute and won first prize at the Argentine Film Board’s awards this year.

“I wrote the screenplay based on real events,” he said. “I didn’t want to make a documentary. I wanted to make a fictional film very much based on what really happened. Before I wrote a word, I went to Argentina and interviewed a lot of children. I realized the subject matter was incredible. What happened to them? I got one story from one child, another story from another.”


Cristina is played by Barbara Lombardo, who was a novice actress with scant credits on her resume in 2001 when Biraben selected her for a role that is freighted with emotions.

“When I read the script for the first time, I felt something very deep inside of me because that character has a lot of pain inside her,” the 25-year-old Argentine actress said during a stop in L.A. “That, for me, was the guide.”

Lombardo, who has since had small roles in “The Motorcycle Diaries” and “A Year Without Love,” said she deliberately avoided doing research for her part in “Cautiva” because “I wanted to protect that strong feeling” that her character experienced finding out about her family’s history.

Making the movie was arduous, say both the actress and the director. The film was only two weeks into principal photography in the fall of 2001 when the Argentine economy collapsed and the country was plunged into political crisis. Biraben said the delays forced him to replace his crew, including his cinematographer, art director and sound man. “Eventually, we finished shooting the movie with a totally different crew, but trying to match what the first crew did.” The movie was completed a year later.

Lombardo said that during the shoot, one of the children of the “disappeared” came on the set. “She told me, ‘You can do it,’ ” the actress recalled. “She looked in my eyes and she shook my hand and she told me, ‘You can do this character.’ ... It was very painful for me.”

Biraben said the film opened in Buenos Aires in 2005.

“In general, people who saw the movie were very impressed,” the director said. “They didn’t expect a movie like this taking this point of view.” But he noted that some people still find the subject very disturbing.

“The older generation doesn’t even want to think about it,” he said. “It would just bring back memories.”