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Remembering a White-Haired Warrior: 'Silence of Others' Protagonist Lost to Coronavirus

By Almudena Carracedo

Jose Maria 'Chato' Galante, protagonist from Almudena Carracedo & Robert Bahar's 'The Silence of Others.'

By Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar

Editor’s Note: José María "Chato" Galante passed away on March 29, 2020, in Madrid, Spain, due to coronavirus, following treatment for lung cancer. Chato was a lifelong activist fighting for justice for victims of Spain's Franco dictatorship and was one of the protagonists in The Silence of Others, by Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar. In December 2018, Chato attended the IDA Documentary Awards in Los Angeles to receive the Pare Lorentz Award with Carracedo and Bahar. Here, the filmmakers share some of their remembrances. 

"Look for the big guy with really white hair. His name is Chato."

That's how we met José María "Chato" Galante in Madrid in 2012, early in the seven-year journey of making The Silence of Others. Chato, then 64, was helping to organize an international lawsuit that would attempt to prosecute crimes against humanity committed during Spain's 40-year dictatorship. As Chato would later retell with a mischievous smile, at the time, the lawsuit had hardly gotten any press, so when we showed up to that meeting with a big camera and a long boompole, everyone stared at us in disbelief. Perhaps, they thought, we had gone to the wrong meeting? It was a moment when nothing that would later unfold seemed possible. It also marked the beginning of our journey with this white-haired man who would become our friend.

In 1969, one of Chato's friends, who had been organizing fellow university students against Spain’s dictatorship, died in the hands of the Spanish police's "political brigade." The killing galvanized a generation, and Chato decided to dedicate his life to fighting the dictatorship. As a result of his activism, Chato was jailed and tortured—experiences that marked his life forever.

The Silence of Others picks up the story 40 years later, as Chato and dozens of other victims and activists come together to demand the justice that they were denied in the 1970s, when Spain transitioned to democracy. Over six years of shooting, we would often find ourselves at Chato's place, filming him working tirelessly for the cause, strategizing with the lawyers about the lawsuit, preparing testimony, and so many etceteras.

Chato soon became accustomed to the camera in front of Almudena’s eyes, and Robert at boompole distance. As our trust grew, we would brainstorm together about the vision for the film. Chato would share wisdom from decades of activism and one afternoon, he sought our opinion too. He was preparing to publicly describe, for the first time, the details of the torture he had been subjected to. After two hours of pacing, rehearsing his testimony, Chato sank into his armchair, momentarily defeated. Looking Almudena in the eye, he asked, "But how will anyone ever understand what I was feeling in that moment?" We put down the camera and talked, sharing our own struggle of how we try to use film not just to relay facts or make an argument, but to make forgotten horrors palpable, to make people feel as if they were in our characters' skin. As we talked, we could sense an idea dawning in Chato's mind. The next day, he delivered the most powerful testimony we had ever heard. After recounting chilling details of his torture, Chato opened his soul to share how he had resisted such degradation, concluding, "It wasn’t because of my political convictions. I resisted out of rage…I resisted…because I was a human being." After a silence, the room erupted into furious applause. We were all crying, and so was he.

Two years before we finished the film, Chato was one of the first to embrace the possibility that it could be a tool for impact. While many wondered if our impact goals were really achievable, Chato was a warrior; he joined us at Good Pitch in Stockholm to make an emotional appeal: "In jail, we political prisoners used our spoons to dig an escape tunnel that would lead us to freedom, he related. "Now this film must become our spoon… But we can’t do it alone. This is the moment when we need all of you to pick up your spoons. We need your help so that millions of people see this film and we can break this impunity. Because this film and this campaign are the most important international exposure that we victims will ever have!" The audience rose in a standing ovation and, in that moment, surrounded by people who had come together because of their belief in the power of film to transform societies, Chato got his first taste of what would one day come with the film.

In 2018, The Silence of Others premiered in Berlin. Chato was there on stage with us, alongside many of the protagonists. It was only the start of two years of travel together: He would visit Sheffield, Toronto, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Beirut, Reykjavik and Buenos Aires with the film, as well as countless cities, towns and schools in Spain. Whenever Chato appeared on stage after a screening, people would spring to their feet in applause. It was impossible to remain impassive in the dignity of his presence.

When The Silence of Others premiered in Spain—where it was eventually seen by more than a million people and won the Goya, Spain’s equivalent to the Academy Award—people began to stop Chato on the street, recognizing his white hair immediately, to share stories of suffering or resistance, or simply to give him a hug. In these moments he would savor that the impunity of torturers and other perpetrators was now widely known, and that people were starting to see it not just as "the victims' problem" but as something affecting society as a whole. But his hard work of activism never ceased. He would prepare notes before every speech and he would watch the entire film before every Q&A (we cannot imagine how many times he must have seen it!) because he felt it helped him connect to each audience emotionally. His energy was boundless.

At the 2018 IDA Documentary Awards, left to right: Jose Marie 'Chato' Galante, Almudena Carracedo, Robert Bahar, presenter Emily Deschanel. Photo: Tibrina Hobson

In this terrible global moment of loss and death, it is hard to believe that Chato is gone, that we must bid farewell. Chato, we traveled continents together. We chuckled at your child-like joy exploring Manhattan for the first time. We hurried through the Beverly Center with you hours before the IDA Documentary Awards, making last-minute fashion choices together. In the green room before the Goyas, we debated what to say in the speech if we were lucky enough to win, and we drank and celebrated for the cause when we did. You took the film as your own, and you crisscrossed Spain with it, inspiring new generations with your beautiful optimism that things can change, that change is worth fighting for, and that even the greatest obstacles can be overcome. You, who helped dig a tunnel with a spoon, inspire us to continue holding our spoons up high and keep walking the road towards justice.

Godspeed, and hasta siempre, white-haired warrior.

Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar are the directors/producers of The Silence of Others, which won the 2019 Goya for Best Documentary Feature (Spain's Academy Award) and was shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature for the 91st Academy Awards. Their previous film, Made in L.A., won an Emmy.