“We appear to be in a democracy,” remarks former police officer Andrade, in a satirical tone as he looks nervously into the camera.
“I was beaten by a barrage of batons,” asserts Miguel, speaking of the police abuse against students during a university strike.
“They would report me for saying things like ‘men and women are the same’ or ‘women should fight for her rights,’” reveals Norma, explaining her experience of censorship as a feminist university professor.
“I’m sleeping and they’re watching me in my dreams” says Pupa, a preeminent badass in grandma glasses describing the round-clock surveillance of her home by the secret police.
“We were prisoners in our own land,” exclaims Ismael, describing the feelings of residents towards the presence of a U.S. naval base and daily military exercises on the island of Vieques
These words in the Puerto Rico documentary The Files (Las Carpetas) offer us a small glimpse of life under a police state. It gives us a quick glance of politically-motivated persecution; a multi-character montage of those who dared to speak of or work towards justice, equality, and freedom. And in sincere chats with the camera, they describe the suffering they endured because of it.
The four main protagonists detail over 20 years of personal repression due to their involvement in multiple causes connected to the Puerto Rican independence movement. Pupa is an activist and friend of Fidel Castro. Miguel was a student leader from a pro-U.S. family. Norma is a journalist and teacher with a feminist worldview. And Ismael is a fisherman who led a movement to rid his island home from the navy. In small and large ways they each challenged the U.S. government’s presence on their lands of birth; they also confronted embedded Puerto Rican societal norms. As a consequence, the police’s “Intelligence Division” worked to crush them, along with about 135,000 others.
With the films’ camera operating as a tool of espionage, horrifying stories of survival intertwines with a depiction of their daily routines. This transforms the audience into the violating peeping Toms prominent in their chronicles, stirring feelings of intrigue, but in no way producing empathy for the secret police. The protagonists’ stories are a testament to the appalling lengths the state was willing go in order to maintain “national security,” as Andrade calls it. False criminal charges, murder, imposed destitution, and a network of informants – nothing was off limits and it is all detailed in carpetas or files released by the island’s Supreme Court in the 1990s.
Unfortunately, we too often associate despotism with extreme examples, like Nazi Germany or Pol Pot’s Cambodia. This blinds us from examining the oppressive elements of the societies we live in. Puerto Rico is far from the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields, but in an intimate way the film unveils just how far the Puerto Rican government, in cahoots with the FBI, went to ensure U.S. control over the island. What it stresses is that if folks are restricted from expressing their beliefs, if entire populations are prevented from exercising self-determination, we may appear to be living in a just society, but in reality, we are far from it.
The Files is a short, but complex narrative of the ways in which “everyday citizens” could be deemed a threat. It does not feel like a long, boring history lesson nor does it turn into a campy spy film. Its style and approach is as sincere as the voices heard through the screen. Nonetheless, it leaves much to desired (including the crews’ editing skills); but gives clues for independent research and provides room to contemplate important issues, like democracy and colonialism. This, I believe, is intentional and essential.
In the final scene, Pupa exalts the beauty of her homeland, looking at a sunset over her balcony. By giving us a panoramic view of those purple clouds passing through mountains tops, the audience is encouraged to see that many sacrificed so that all in that beautiful land may live a more liberating existence. It also makes us question how could Hell enter into that Garden of Eden. While some may be comfortable turning a blind eye towards or even justifying repression, The Files, in a way, forces us to ask: what must we to do in order to make our societies more free, just, and peaceful?