Splinters is a documentary about the Rio Tercero explosion, something I was completely ignorant of before watching this film. It is made almost entirely from home movies shot by the filmmaker as a 10-year-old kid.
Natalia Garayalde lived in Rio Tercero with her family, her mum and dad, brother Nicolas, and sisters Caro and Gabi. Her mum was a schoolteacher and her dad was a doctor, and they lived a comfortable and happy suburban life. Rio Tercero was a small town, with a church, school, park, town square, and sports clubs. The major employers were two nearby chemical plants and a munitions factory belonging to the military. Natalia’s home movies speak to the fun and freedom of a 90s childhood in a middle-class home in a safe neighbourhood. Jumping in the backyard pool, playing with their new camcorder, making news reports while hanging upside down from their bunkbeds, so their hair stood straight up. It’s the kind of scenes that make you realise these are your best years, these are what you will look back on as the good old days.
Then on November 3rd 1995, the munitions factory exploded. All the bombs, explosives and shrapnel were thrown high in the air over the town. On videotape is a stranger who has bundled Natalia and her brother into the back of his car, driving them to safety at the outskirts of town. He scoops up a woman franticly running down the street with a baby in her arms, as metal rains down, and dogs run through traffic, seeking cover. The noise is like engulfing thunder and the sky has a black, sooty mushroom cloud. Everywhere people are panicking and the secondary explosions of falling bombs echo around them. From behind me in the cinema, I hear someone faintly whisper, “Fuck.”
The following scenes are surprisingly light, because they are shot by a kid, and are from a child’s perspective. Kids are like plastic, they bounce back from anything. Natalia’s reaction is that of most 10-year-olds witnessing a huge explosion . . . cool! Once it’s clear everyone is safe and sound, in her family at least, all she can think about is how exciting it is to be on the news. Plus, there’s no school, so wahhay! She and her brother tour the town doing their own news reports on the debris, barely able to contain their excitement.
The President even shows up in town. He’s here to quell any potential panic, assuring everyone this has been merely an unfortunate accident. He tells a press conference that the media should act responsibly and inform people of this fact, and not work against the government by spreading unfounded rumours. The chemical plants were not damaged, and there is no possibility of chemical contamination of the shrapnel and debris. Everyone should just go about their lives as normal, and funds would be made available for repairs.
If your bullshit senses are tingling, you’re not the only one. Natalia’s neighbour Omar is blamed for the disaster. Initial investigators’ tests concluded a spark had ignited explosive as a result of his work. At home Omar tried to recreate their experiments to clear his name. Setting up his camcorder, he placed a square of the explosive concerned on a table, then took his grinder and a piece of steel and stood over it raining sparks down upon it, like a fucking boss. He was so certain is was bullshit, he was willing to recreate it in his kitchen with no safety equipment, at not even arm’s length from his face. And sure enough, no amount of sparks caused it to catch fire.
The full story would not come out until decades later, and it was one of corruption, international arms trafficking, and flagrant disregard for human life. Another film might pull back to make the perpetrators and their dealings the centre of the story. But in Splinters, the film remains steadfastly on her family and her hometown. The lies that were told that day to keep everyone sedate had repercussions for everyone in Rio Tercero. Her family, like many others, saw the buried truth sprout dark flowers.
Splinters is such an interesting documentary, forcing the viewer into a state of vulnerability along with the innocent people of the town, completely dependent on outside explanation for why their world has suddenly upended. Right up until almost the end, you only know what Natalia and her family knew, living through it, and at the mercy of media reports for any perspective or protection.
An intensely personal window into the lives of those who are so often are reported only as numbers.