A Love Song In Spanish

A Love Song In Spanish is a portrait by the filmmaker of her grandparents.

Her grandmother lives in a simple but pristinely kept home. She carries herself with dignity as she cleans and tidies and shells beans for cooking. Although she is old and her body is now vulnerable with age, she still stands firm and steady. When she wants to dance, she puts on her face and pins a flower in her hair, makes herself presentable with sure and deliberate sweeps of blush. She seems solid and certain in who she is.

Yet there is always a sense of waiting. She is shown sitting alone at her table, as though she is expecting to be joined, but no one comes. She dances in her livingroom, but with no partner, and returns to glancing out the window when the song ends.

Their house is haunted by the memory of her husband, the filmmaker’s grandfather. Their story is not narrated in a detailed linear history, but told in flakes of monologue from her grandmother. The film uses archival and contemporary footage of military marching chants in place of her grandfather’s voice. He is silent in this portrait, just as he is absent, what speaks for him is what consumed him, the military.

For her grandmother, there is no need to tell or explain the Panamanian military dictatorship, she “lived it in my body”. Her husband went for training in Israel and came back traumatised. He was controlling, would fly into jealous rages, and could enact violence. Her grandmother tells how she wasn’t even able to sit outside, for that was seen as enough justification for his paranoia. When she took a ride home from the shops in a neighbour’s car, her husband had the man lifted and tortured.

Comparing the military dictatorship’s effects on the country, and the military dictatorship of her grandfather in his own home, this personal portrait speaks to a wider collective trauma. One which still struggles to be articulated.

What her grandmother describes reminds me of what the old school feminists called father-tyranny. The patriarchy enforced through the strata of large social institutions down to the nuclear family unit. The father as absolute ruler of the home and in complete control of the women therein.

And yet. The pain of these violences is in the ambivalence with which we endure them, the faith we place in the betrayer. As she whispers her prayers, she asks of her husband, her god, herself, “Why did I have to love you?” When she dances alone, it is him she reaches her hands out to. When she stares out the window, it is him she is looking for. When she sits at her table, it is him she is waiting to be seated.

The love between them has been warped, and abused, and truncated in abrupt and unresolved parting. It is a haunting. She is growing old together with his ghost.

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