Falklands war film reopens old wounds for Argentina's veterans

The war killed 635 Argentine soldiers; 267 have committed suicide since
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A new Argentine film about the Falklands War, partially shot in the islands with Britain's permission, has heightened a debate in Argentina about the outcome of the 1982 invasion and the dictatorship that preceded it.

Enlightened by the Fire depicts the tragedy of Argentine Falklands veterans, who were officially gagged and publicly shunned, with many driven to drink, depression and suicide. Since the end of the war, 267 Argentine veterans have killed themselves, compared with the total of 635 killed in combat.

Ironically, the film has stirred more controversy in Argentina than in the Falklands themselves, where the makers had few problems. It is based on a book of the same name by Edgardo Esteban, 40, who in 1999 became the first Argentine ex-combatant to return to the islands, this time as a TV journalist. "They hated me then, I was barely allowed to enter Goose Green, but this time it was fine," he said. "We had a few dirty looks and people shouting 'fuck you', but for the most part they were respectful and let us get on with it."

Battle scenes were filmed in Patagonia, however, both on cost grounds and because, in the author's words, "it would have been hugely controversial" in the Falklands. All the extras playing British soldiers are Argentine.

The film, which finishes shooting next month, is well-timed: Argentina's new president, Nestor Kirchner, has lifted the lid on the painful past by revoking a law, passed in 2001, which protected members of the Argentine military from extradition. Among those facing international justice are not only the dictators responsible for invading the Falklands, but those accused of kidnapping and murdering around 30,000 Argentines during the "dirty war" on left-wingers at home.

The psychological impact on the families of those who disappeared during the "dirty war" is the subject of another new film - Imagining Argentina - which stars Emma Thompson. Like Enlightened by the Fire, it is benefiting from a new climate of openness about the past, created by President Kirchner's moves. On top of that, the collapse of the peso has led to a boom in movie production as foreign film-makers exploit the country's scenic possibilities and cheap but skilled technicians.

Until Mr Kirchner amended the law, former military kidnappers, torturers and killers were living openly in Argentina. He argued that it was necessary to rid the country of the "stain of impunity" created by President Carlos Menem's blanket pardon in 1990 for military crimes, supposedly in a "spirit of national reconciliation", but actually to ward off an army uprising.

"Kirchner is trying to heal the wounds and build a more serious country, which it won't be until justice begins to function," said Mr Esteban. But the President's critics fear that the historical debate could sap his administration and distract it from pressing economic issues such as renegotiating the country's £87.5bn debt.

Roberto Suarez, 29, a film technician, said Mr Kirchner was emphasising human rights because he had nothing else to offer on gaining power. "But they'll only get a few of [the human rights violators], and it brings back old resentments. There comes a point when you have to say, 'Let's move on, though not forget'."

The makers of Imagining Argentina and Enlightened by the Fire disagree. "If they killed your child, stole your grandchild or sent your son to die, cold and hungry, in trenches in the South Atlantic, you don't heal," said Mr Esteban. He hopes the film of his book will provoke a debate on the reasons why 267 of his fellow veterans have killed themselves.

Not that President Kirchner is abandoning Argentina's historic claim to the Falklands. It was renewed at the United Nations decolonisation committee in June, and repeated when he met Tony Blair last month. Britain's response came last week through the Foreign Office minister for Latin America, Bill Rammell, who said: "The Falkland Islands will continue to be British while the islanders want them to be, and that is the last word on the matter."