Friday, August 31, 2018

The Politics of Acting: Argentina’s Norma Aleandro in Conversation

Norma Aleandro in The Official Story (La historia oficial, 1985).

When the junta took over Argentina in 1976, it ate away at the heart of this South American nation, slowly obliterating all who stood in its way. Among the terrorized who have lived to tell the tale is the celebrated Argentinian actress, Norma Aleandro, now 82. I first learned of her plight from the 1985 Luis Puenzo film, The Official Story, a powerful exposé of the desaparecidos, the missing ones, who disappeared, never to be found again, during the "dirty war" waged by those opposed to the military dictatorship. Aleandro had come to Toronto for the gala screening and agreed to sit down with me for an interview.

She perched on the edge of a plush armchair in a downtown hotel room, puffing on a Marlboro and apologizing for not speaking English very well. "I can understand some things, but not the important things," she said. To help her bridge any gaps in communication. Aleandro had brought along a friend, "my official translator" she called her. Visibly relaxing, she looked up at me with her large, dark, passionate eyes and awaited my first question. Quite naturally, we began speaking about politics. She led the way by saying this:

"July 23, 1976, I discovered a bomb under my house and a bomb under the theatre where I worked. A phone call came sometime later and they [members of the military dictatorship] told me to leave the country in 24 hours. I left in six."

Exiled, Aleandro came to live in Uruguay for a year and a half – the time it took for the papers that would allow her finally to immigrate to Spain with her husband and son to arrive at her new, estranged location. Her family had come to visit her there every weekend, which Aleandro says was a difficult and dangerous thing to do. Back in Argentina, her loved ones had to move from place to place in order to throw the junta off their tracks.

The government had declared Aleandro a dangerous person, even though she was not openly subversive. She didn’t belong to a political party, and never has. Rather, she was considered dangerous because, as a popular actress, she had the power to influence and inspire large numbers of people. For that reason, she said., the junta had singled her out, not to kill her (though Aleandro claims it was easily within their power to do so), but to set her up as an example of what the junta could do to citizens who might question, or revolt.

Aleandro returned to Argentina after 10 years of exile to find herself suddenly lionized by the very rulers who once sought to destroy her and her career. In 1985, she shared the prize for best actress at the Cannes Film Festival with Cher. The ensuing publicity helped make her practically a household name across Europe and North America at the time. It also her turned her into something of a national icon.

Shortly after returning from Cannes, Argentina’s then-president, Raúl Alfonsin, invited her to dinner. "It was like an explosion," Aleandro recalled, relishing the irony. "It was as if I were one of the champions who had won the world soccer title – soccer is one of my country's most popular forms of expression. Any kind of success like this in the cinema is always like an explosion."

The youth, especially, came to adore her, following her everywhere and waiting for her backstage at the theatre to ask for her autograph, as well as questions about Argentina’s dirty past. They listened to what she had to say because to the new generation she represented freedom, and a true artistic integrity.

Though outspoken, she tends to avoid politically charged theatre. It’s usually "malo," or bad, she said, not art at all. Her preference is to perform modern works by Henrik Ibsen and Arthur Miller, for example, playwrights she singled out for exploring the complexity of what it means to be a human being. Aleandro has always acted from the heart.

When living in Uruguay, she directed Euripedes' Medea, placing special emphasis on the play's foreign element. "Medea is a stranger in her own country,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “What was religion to her, others interpreted as witchcraft. A profound misunderstanding."

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer on staff at The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1985 to 2017. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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