“Visitation. It’s just a terrible word,” says Gabriel Balanovsky, the producer of the documentary film ‘Borrando a Papá’ [Erasing Dad]. “There are only three moments in life for visitation – when someone is in jail, when someone is in the hospital, or when you’re a divorced father going to see your kid. How can a father’s relationship with a son or daughter suddenly be limited to visitation?”
Although it hasn’t yet premiered, Borrando a Papá has already caused quite a stir. The trailer has been viewed 76,000 times on YouTube and the film’s Facebook page has over 19,000 followers – an auspicious start for an Argentine documentary before even reaching the screen. The film’s directors, US ex-pat Ginger Gentile and Argentine Sandra Fernández Ferreira, have appeared on radio and television and in print media discussing the film.
However, not everyone is looking forward to its release: the NGO Salud Activa started a petition on Change.org requesting that Argentina’s film institute INCAA cancel the documentary’s release. According to the petition, the film promotes violence and sexual abuse against minors. After its original release date was pushed back and a pre-screening set for 2nd September at the Colegio de Abogados was cancelled due to pressure from the film’s censors, Borrando a Papá is finally set to premier this Thursday (2nd October).
“When we released our last documentary, ‘Mujeres con Pelotas‘ [Goals for Girls], everybody loved us!” explains Balanovsky. Mujeres con Pelotas follows a group of young women, many from the shantytowns, who play football, a man’s sport par excellence in Argentina. “We were applauded for talking about women’s equality. But men’s equality? They don’t want to hear about men’s equality.”
Borrando a Papá offers a close-up of contested divorce and family violence from a unique perspective: that of the father. According to the film, these fathers are victims of a system that has been so tweaked to protect mothers that it leaves men at the mercy of their ex-wives, who then exploit the family court to keep their ex from seeing his children, often, it would seem, out of spite or vengeance.
Gentile and Fernández interviewed over one hundred men for the documentary, finally settling on six main “characters” for the film. Each of these men has a devastating story of being excluded from his child or children’s lives. Sergio, for example, is isolated from his four kids because of accusations made by their mother. When one of his sons ended up in the hospital with a fractured skull and told the doctors that his mother had hit him, Sergio filed an injunction to take his son into temporary custody. The court refused the injunction, and his son was returned to the care of his abusive mother. Another father, Diego, knows where his daughters live but can’t see them; he drives by their house once a day and whistles up to them from the open sunroof before driving off. Guillermo, a father who suffered physical abuse at the hands of his ex, receives a piece of advice from a social worker: don’t report the violence or you will automatically be suspected of having initiated it.
“It was a very difficult documentary project emotionally,” explains Gentile. “A lot of the men were ashamed to talk about what had happened to them.” It was especially hard for men who had suffered physical abuse by their spouses. “They would use the third-person plural in Spanish – me pegaron – to avoid coming out and saying that their wife had struck them.”
The film moves back and forth between the six men, weaving a story of impotence before a system that appears rigged against any attempt by a father to see his children. Yura is a Russian father who doesn’t even know where his Argentine ex has taken his son; before disappearing with him, she had filed a long list of police reports accusing him of alcoholism, violence, and acts as abominable as “only speaking [to his son] in Russian.” In a meeting with an employee at the Domestic Violence Office where Yura goes to file his own report, he is advised not to bother waiting several hours to be seen by a case worker. “Whatever you tell them, the final report is going to say that your report isn‘t credible and that she is the one at risk,” explains the female worker in a shushed voice. “They’re going to believe her, because she’s the woman.” “Is that legal?” asks Yura. “It’s not legal – it’s the way things are done. We have a team of gender violence specialists and they know when a man’s lying. And he’s always lying.”
The men’s stories are sensitive and thought-provoking, and giving fathers a voice is unquestionably the force of this documentary. Their stories alone would have been more than enough for a feature-length film, yet the filmmakers wanted to show the discrimination against fathers in Argentine family courts from myriad perspectives. The life stories are thus interspersed with statements by a range of people from inside the system, including lawyers, public officials, psychologists, and NGO workers, many of whom appear uncannily comfortable with this machista notion that men are naturally prone to violence and abuse while women are naturally inclined to caregiving and childrearing.
Some of these people are the ones who are now speaking out against the film. “We didn’t think there would be such an adverse reaction, with people demanding censorship,” explained Gentile. “We were very careful not to attack individuals or organisations. We thought, we’re making a small documentary here so let’s give everyone an elegant exit.”
On the other hand, people who have heard about the movie are also reaching out to them. “We receive about 50 emails every day from people who have seen the trailer and visited our website – people asking us for help because they can’t see their child,” says Gentile. Men aren’t the only ones drawn to the film. “Half of our Facebook followers are women.”
In spite of the film’s fortes, however, there are two sections that throw it slightly off course. The first presents Jorge Corsi, a psychologist who designed the academic specialisation of “family violence” in 1989; its curriculum is still in use at Universidad de Buenos Aires’ school of psychology. Although the programme curriculum is related to the film’s topic (the study programme contemplates exclusively male perpetrators of violence against female victims), the fact that Jorge Corsi was subsequently accused and convicted of sexual abusing a minor seems to stray from the core issue of the film, which is a father’s right to be with his children.
The second segment from the film that could have perhaps been saved for a follow-up documentary on the subject is an interview from British television with Erin Pizzey, a family care activist. Pizzey talks about how the court system in the UK is designed to perpetuate divorce and child custody because of all the money there is to be made in these cases by lawyers, court-appointed psychologists, visitation companions, etc. The film then suggests that the system could also be profit-driven in Argentina. But given the fact that the entire Argentine court system is notorious for its drawn-out blundering, it seems like a stretch to posit that there is a moneymaking scheme behind all the ineptitude; and if this were the case, it would seem logical to assume that there is as much money to be made from mothers as there is from fathers. In any case, the segment again distracts us from the highly compelling life stories of the film.
On Balanovsky and Gentile’s behalf, it is fair to say that they are both so passionate about this topic that it was probably difficult to decide what to leave out. These are stories close to both of their hearts: after fighting to have his visitation rights enforced, Balanovsky was accused of kidnapping his daughter by a criminal court judge even though a family court judge had given him provisional custody. He was later apprehended and spent a year in jail before being released (a judge ultimately ruled that since his parenting rights were still in force, he could not be accused of “kidnapping”). Despite being given visitation rights, he has not seen his daughter in the ensuing 12 years. The incident is frequently brought up by the people who want the film to be censored. As for Gentile, she was moved by Balanovsky’s struggle, as she herself had been isolated from her father as a teenager after her parents’ divorce.
“We are planning to turn this into a trilogy,” explains Gentile, “With a second film focused on the business side of divorce, and a third film that ends on a more positive note, examining possible solutions to this problem – going to places like Belgium, where shared custody is the norm.”
If all goes as planned, the film should be in cinemas starting this Thursday. As with most Argentine documentaries, it is not likely to last long in theatres, and it is well worth seeing. Luckily, after its release on 2nd October, Balanovsky and Gentile are planning on uploading it onto their YouTube page with English subtitles. Their ultimate goal is to spread the word on the plight of these fathers in an effort to finally balance the scales between mothers’ and fathers’ rights.