January 19, 2017
Thirteen Among a Thousand (Trece Entre Mil) – Spain, 2005
On the day I sat down to watch Inaki Arteta’s 2005 documentary Thirteen Among a Thousand, four Israelis died in a suspected terrorist attack. A day earlier, there had been a shooting at an airport in Florida which left five people dead and six injured; over the same two days, news feeds brought multiple reports of carnage in Syria, as well as suicide bombings in both Iraq and Turkey. Death, it seems, is everywhere, yet all too often the frequency of attacks and the constant focus on the number of deaths can have a numbing effect on those not directly affected by the attacks, so much so that reports on terrorism can be broken away from in the name of advertising dollars without viewers even stopping to think about the implications of a society that is able to go from a report on a deadly bomb attack to the latest automobile commercial without any difficulty whatsoever. I was partly drawn to Thirteen Among a Thousand as a way of forcing myself to combat this mental passivity, for when you recognize the fact the numbers are desensitizing you to the very things you should be irate about, it’s necessary to do something about it.
The subject of Thirteen Among a Thousand also intrigued me. ETA is an organization that I had heard about in news reports, yet the reports were almost always on tragic events that had just happened; they rarely focused about the individuals affected by those events. In a way, I understand this. The news is immediate; it is sensational. For many, a story about how someone is doing ten years after a family member was assassinated simply does not carry the same sense of urgency. Perhaps it should.
Wisely, Thirteen Among a Thousand is not a historical documentary. It does not begin by explaining the origins of ETA or try to explain the group’s politics or aims. Its stated goal is to show viewers how terrorism affects individuals and families, and it accomplishes this by focusing on thirteen families, all of whom lost someone - in some cases more than one person - in the struggle with ETA. Through their stories, I imagine, it is hoped that people will be able to put a name to a number and not forget about the people that are left behind after the media moves on to the next news item. The film asks us to linger a bit longer and to recognize that pain does not always go away.
The film give us ample evidence of this. Parents whose loved ones were needlessly taken from them at a young age. Spouses whose partners never made it home from such innocuous places as supermarkets. Children who watched a parent’s assassination. I could go on. The film shows viewers archival footage from news reports and then switches to the present, and we see that the survivors have not moved on. In two of the accounts, the families speak of the dead in the present tense. As emotional as this part is, another aspect of the film is equally horrifying. In almost all of these cases, justice remains elusive. Time and again, we hear testimony that the guilty remain free. Some are celebrated as heroes; one even works at the school of a survivor’s child. And then there are the whispers, the outrageous oft-repeated implication that the victims must have done something to deserve their fate.
To watch Thirteen Among a Thousand is to be reminded of mankind’s potential for cruelty. It is also to be reminded of the power of community. At times, the only support the survivors get is from fellow survivors, as long-time friends fade from the picture, perhaps as a result of not having any more empathy to give. There was not a moment of the film that was neither moving nor infuriating. In fact, my only complaint, other than the film’s overly optimistic ending, which took away from the film’s established tone, is that I wanted to hear more from some of the people featured in the documentary. That sentiment seems a bit selfish in retrospect, but it speaks to the power of the testimony contained in the film.
According to Wikipedia, it has now been five years since ETA’s last attack, so there is cause for guarded optimism. In circumstances like this, it is all too easy for documentaries like this to be kicked to the curb, as if they were no longer relevant. After all, focusing on past pain can sometimes be seen as impeding future progress. However, films like Thirteen Among a Thousand have a weight that transcends the specific horrors they depict. They shed a light on the experiences of so many other people around the world, of widows and orphans in Iraq, parents in Israel and Palestine, and classmates of victims of school shootings in the United States. Pain and sorrow are universal, and every now and then we need to be reminded of this. Thirteen Among a Thousand does that exceptionally well. (on DVD in Region 2)
3 and a half stars
*Thirteen Among a Thousand is in Spanish with English subtitles.