Rubén, a 60 year old Argentinian, has been working at the botanical garden in Zurich for more than 20 years. He was kidnapped during the military dictatorship in 1976, illegally imprisoned and tortured for two years. In 1978 he was expatriated to Spain and from there in 1982, thanks to a love affair, he landed in Switzerland, where he still lives.
Rubén talks about his life in clandestine prisons and about his life since then in Switzerland, his country of exile: in spite of everything, he survived. Others didn't. Every day he wakes up and remembers he is a survivor. His entire life is synonymous with survival, and the feeling of having to start all over again has always been present.
His daily working life offers a counterpart to this. He makes a systematic register of plants at the herbarium. This brings some peace to his inner restlessness. But the memory of torture does not disappear. Any incident, any unexpected event can bring back feelings of powerlessness and terror.
“You can get used to torture, but you will never be released from it”, states Rubén. This is the reason why he is still fighting for atonement and justice as a witness against the mercenaries of the military dictatorship.
At the same time Rubén experiences contradictory feelings about his life in Switzerland. Being allowed to live in Switzerland, in his apartment, with a balcony and views over a meadow where sheep graze peacefully, his walks in the city and in Zurich's parks, all this gives him trust. However, even today Rubén has the feeling of still being a foreigner in Switzerland: his gratitude towards the country of his exile is welcome, his criticisms of it less so.
Documentary of a life in exile
Rubén and the Botanical Garden is a documentary about a life in exile: not about a voluntary migration, but about the unplanned migration of a persecuted man due to his political views. To live in exile means never to be part of the whole. It's always painful. And yet we can find other things in exile: new friends, a new environment, a pipe with fragrant tobacco, a good glass of wine...
Life outside, a barbecue with friends... these were recurrent themes in prison. Prisoners talked about that day and night, hungry and frozen, watching the time go by, supporting each other when they were thrown back into their cells after hours of torture, without knowing whether or not this nightmare would ever end. Wondering whether or not they would survive.
The film focuses on Rubén's exile history; the traumatic, recurring and unsought memories of his period in clandestine prisons; his forced exile; his role as a witness during the trials against the military dictatorship. The film also deals with Rubén's everyday life, his job in the secluded archive, his breaks at the botanical garden, his relaxed moments smoking his pipe amongst the trees.
Rubén started writing when he was a young man. He published his book “Mañana será otro día” (Tomorrow will be another day) in exile, in 1980. Spoken extracts from his book explain Rubén's memories from captivity and reveal the extent to which they may have determined the pattern of his life since then.
Love would bring Rubén to the Swiss region of Sarganserland, in St. Gallen. This was his first place of residence in Switzerland thanks to Amnesty International. He, a city man, had hoped this new peaceful environment, this country life would allow him to start from scratch. This was not the case: the reality of exile stifled him and his marriage failed. He then moved to Zurich and found a job at the Institute for Systematic Botany in the botanical garden.
His experience of the vulnerability of democratic government in Argentina led him to actively work defending human rights in his country. He took and still takes part as a witness in trials against the torturer of the former regime. This, also, is the price of survival, he was a witness. 30 years have passed. It would be kinder if he could forget . but he needs to remember. He survived. Others didn't. He needs to remember- for them. That is the price of survival - but also of justice.
On the basis of Rubén's story, the film shows what exile really means for a political refugee. So often in the public opinion right up to the present day, refugees and asylum seekers are seen to be the problem, considered a burden on the society. But what about their perspective?
This documentary tries to look at the question from the perspective of one such individual, on behalf of the many who did not abandon their countries looking for adventure or better jobs, but in order to survive. As such, Rubén's voice had to be the essential one through which the story was told, and for this reason we consciously decided against including interviews with friends or experts in the field
Getting involved in Rubén's destiny allows to reflect upon the reality of exile, question our opinion and our relationship with other people who have to live in migration.
Despite its comparatively brief history as an independent nation, Argentina has suffered innumerable dictatorships. One of the bloodiest was the Videla and Bignone's infamous totalitarian rule with atrocious human rights violations from 1976 to 1981 and from 1982 to 1983 respectively.
At that time, 30 000 people were kidnapped, many of of whom are counted among 'The Disappeared' to this day. One of the forced disappearance methods the Junta used were death flights (vuelos de la muerte) which were routinely practiced. Victims of death flights were first drugged into a stupor and then pushed from the aircraft into the ocean to drown. Many pregnant victims were carried to clandestine prisons, gave birth there and afterwards their newborn babies were abducted and unlawfully given to families supporting the regime. Around 500 babies have been recorded as kidnapped in this way.
The “Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo” (Madres y Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo) have been fighting for decades for justice, uncovering crimes and denouncing torturers who had never been accused of any crime. These mothers and grandmothers keep on looking for their grandchildren. Hand in hand with other associations they succeeded in bringing some of the the criminals responsible to prosecution, and to this day continue to struggle for justice for the victims of the Junta.
In 2011 Marine Commander Alfredo Astiz together with 15 other criminals was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity. Dictators Jorge Rafael Videla and Reynaldo Bignone, presiding over the Junta, were convicted and sentenced twice to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity. During the last trial in July 2012 regarding trafficking of babies, Videla was convicted to 50 years imprisonment, and Bignone to 14 years.
According to the Argentinian constitution, political prisoners had at that time two options ( if they were fortunate enough to survive the tortures): they could turn into legal political prisoners with no access to justice; or they could be expatriated.
The refugee policy of Switzerland during the 70s and 80s was not directed towards the victims of the military dictatorships in Latin America, but focussed instead on what were at that time the communist countries of Eastern Europe. Switzerland only began to accept refugees from Latin America, especially from Chile, once sufficient public pressure came to bear on the government, forcing them to amend this policy.