Set during the Cold War, amidst intrigue and espionage in the United Nations of the late ’70s and ‘80s, this is the dramatic story of Theo van Boven, the then new Director of Human Rights, who opened the UN door for the first time to refugees and survivors of human rights abuse from across the world. He took drastic action against the many thousands of disappearances, with the first UN investigation of any country – Chile, then struggled to confront the Argentinian junta and other military dictatorships across South America. Eventually, the UN under his leadership even challenged Spain and the massive disappearances under Franco – second only to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, according to former Judge Baltasar Garzón.
In turn, the dictatorships fought back. As pressures mounted at the UN, Van Boven even discovered he is on an Argentinian junta’s hit list. Another accused ‘subversive’, famed and tortured pianist Miguel Estrella confided to van Boven that the future UN Secretary General Perez de Cuellar who whitewashed a report on the military juntas. Van Boven takes Estrella’s word over de Cuellar, and confronted not only the Latin American governments but the Reagan administration and eventually the Secretary General. Though van Boven paid the price with his career, he created changes in the system that last through to today.
‘The Subversives’ includes survivors of torture under the dictatorships and key members of the UN team, including Theo van Boven and his former Special Assistants, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Baltasar Garzón, as well as those who defended the military dictatorships such as Reagan’s Under Secretary of State.
As human rights remain under attack, the film gives voice to many accused of being subversive and undermining their governments, It is a reflection not only of history but of our time, and the need for vigilance against gross violations of human rights.
Using rare archive and filmed in Argentina, Chile, Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland and New York, it features emotional and intimate portraits and testimony of survivors as well as evocative and eerie sequences of the torture centers and mass graves that still remain.
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