Trans-Media Project
~ Atlas of Disappearance

Entrance to the basilica of El Valle de los Caídos

On the 24th of october 2019, the remains of dictator Francisco Franco were exhumed from ‘El Valle de los Caídos’, a deeply divisive monument completed in 1959 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of fascism’s victory over democracy in the Spanish Civil War. Underneath the largest cross in Christendom lies the cavernous Basilica of the Holy Cross. For more than half a century, the monument concealed a dark secret:  it is the largest mass grave anywhere in the world. Behind the inner walls of the basilica lie an estimated 33,800 human remains. Twenty years after the war, Franco’s government quietly carried out a massive logistical enterprise involving every municipality in the country in order to exhume and relocate some 491 burial sites. Until recently, it was believed that only the remains of those who fought for Franco had been chosen to be buried in the monument. As the years passed, the families of forcefully disappeared republicans gradually discovered the unthinkable: their bodies had been stolen from their presumed resting places and forever sealed inside the ossuaries of El Valle de los Caídos, one of the most restricted places in Spain. Despite being the architectural pinnacle of Spain’s genocidal history, the future of El Valle de los Caídos remains unclear.

‘Atlas of Disappearance’ is an ongoing creative documentary that portrays a group of relatives during 4 years of their battle to have their family members removed from El Valle de los Caídos. Under threat of persecution during the dictatorship and social ostracization in the early years of the nascent democracy, the burden of memory was handed down to the descendants of the dead.

Fransicso Etxeberria testifies using our architectural reconstruction of the ossuaries

The filmmakers have become active collaborators of the two largest associations of relatives seeking to exhume their missing ones from El Valle de los Caídos. AFPERV headed by  Silvia Navarro-Pablo, 51, who since 2007 has assumed the representation of 35 families demanding these exhumations. For decades, Silvia has tirelessly researched the cases of the disappeared families she represents. She has introduced us to many other families and is the most central character in the film.

Silvia Navarro-Pablo gives a situated testimony in the Bartolina mass grave.

Working intimately with Silvia, her research became a point of departure. Together with her, we have scripted scenes focusing on the architectural vestiges of the violence against Pepe Viedma -her great-uncle- in the town of Calatayud. The sites of detention, torture and execution have mostly disappeared or are in ruinous decay, in many cases a result of policy.

This is significant to us, signaling an intentionally induced generalized oblivion. We followed her as she reconstructed-in-situ about what she believes were his last hours: We visited the house where he was detained, the site where he was executed and ultimately, the disappeared mass grave where her family used to bring flowers.

Fausto Canales briefs the rest of the Aldeaseca families of the current state of the exhumations

Fausto Canales, 88, heads the second largest association of families. In 2001, he managed to collect funds to try to locate and exhume his father from a dry well in Avíla’s barren countryside. To everyone’s bewilderment, only a single finger was discovered, which led the experts to determine that the grave had indeed been stolen. Years later, further evidence verified that the mass grave had been brought to El Valle de los Caídos when a photograph of the ossuaries surfaced, Fausto saw in it the name of his town. The 87-year-old  collaborated with us on recreating a model of the ossuaries in El Valle de los Caídos, to locate the possible resting site of his father's remains.  Our collaboration with both communities is guided by care and seeks to make accessible and public the state-violence inflicted upon them and aid the process of accountability.

Map of all the mass graves moved to El Valle de los Caídos

As filmmakers we have been given the trust required to follow this story to whatever its conclusion may be. Atlas of Disappearance will be a beautifully told David and Goliath story about persistence in the face of an inapprehensible force.  

Mercedes Abril shows us a picture of her father Rafael Abril Avo from her archive.

Atlas of Disappearance is currently being developed into a documentary film with the support of Fritt Ord Foundation and Sornorsk Filmsenter.