Filmmaker's Diary: Part VI

Another Insight, from the Brazilian Perspective

From the best-selling book, To the Bitter End: Paraguay and the War of the Triple Alliance (Contributions in Military Studies)  by Chris Leuchars (Dec 30, 2002):

"...superficially, it might seem that the Brazilians came out best, for they had gained all the land they wanted and had, at least for the time being, won a preponderant influence in Paraguay - but they paid a price for it. The return of their armies did lead to social instability, as many had feared, and within 20 years the emperor had been deposed, the slaves freed, and a republic ushered in. The costs of the war were almost incalculable, and the economic crisis of the 1870's, brought on by this expenditure, had a crippling effect on the country's development. The railway to Corumbá, built shortly afterwards, provided a more reliable link to Mato Grosso, which raised questions about the whole point of the war. The human cost, too, was significant, for even the lowest estimates quote a figure as high as 25,000 for the number of deaths, which rises to 100,000 when casualties from disease are taken into account...."

Filmmaker's Diary: Part V

In Uruguay Again
[Better Reception This Time]

The Universidad de Montevideo hosted the Segunda Jornadas Internacionales de la Historia del Paraguay between 14 and 18 June 2010 in the Uruguayan capital.  In attendance were scholars from numerous countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Great Britain, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, and the United States. Thirty-two papers were read on various aspects of Paraguayan history, including studies of indigenous participation during the 1932-1935 Chaco conflict, mestizo identity in the early republic, and discursive elements in the Spanish-Guaraná bilingualism of the colonial era.  A published version of the ponencias is slated for publication in Asunción with Editorial Tiempo de Historia at the beginning of 2011, and a Tercera Jornadas on Paraguay is planned, again in Montevideo, in 2012.   For further information, e-mail Prof. Juan Manuel Casal at

The war that devastated the continent is still for so many South Americans a non-topic - but perhaps NOT in Paraguay.... You'd think that with the economic growth now in Brazil and other parts of South America that would change. Well, perhaps it is - but slowly...

Prof. Thomas Whigham, who was the chief consultant for the documentary, was down in Paraguay recently at the publication ceremony for his work on the war. this is what he had to say:

"I've just come from Asuncion for the presentation of the Spanish-language version of the first volume of my Paraguayan War study. You may not credit it, but the whole business converted me into a celebrity in Paraguay and even the President of the Republic got caught reading my book. No lie. Various publishers were hunting me down to discuss future publications. I gave talks to high-school teachers about how to teach their country's history (2,000 of them in an enormous auditorium one day and about 1,000 at the university the next day), I was interviewed on TV and radio and in the newspapers, and I gave talks at the War College before generals and admirals, and also before a mixed bag of politicians, scholars, and assorted fans at the old legislative building, now called the "Cabildo." Paraguay is finally changing, a fact that was pointed out to me by many people. The kinds of things I was saying publicly could not have been said 20 years ago, even after the fall of the dictatorship, and now not only do I find a healthy curiosity and interest about history on the part of the younger generation, even the older folks are speaking to me with newfound respect."


'Paraguayan War' Praised in
Journal of Military History

The Journal of Military History, one of the preeminent periodicals of its kind, praised The Paraguayan War in its Spring 2010 issue, saying:
"Denis Wright skillfully incorporates archival photographs, oil paintings, watercolors, satirical cartoons newspaper articles, diaries, biographies, as well as computer-generated tell his story...I would recommend this video for those interested in Third World wars, Latin American history, and nineteenth century military history."

Filmmaker's Diary: Part IV

The most important thing to remember is this: Since the war ended in 1870, Paraguayans are just not sure what to do about this horrendous event in their nation's history. But for that matter, nor have the Brazilians, the Argentinians or the Uruguayans.  
History is in large part something all South Americans would rather not bring up - they've been adept over the years at either ignoring the history of a region soaked in blood and heroism (like every other part of the planet) or spinning events to suit the purpose of the day. And so in Paraguay, the man currently wearing the presidential sash is Fernando Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop who has not managed, in any significant way, to shake up this small country after 60 uninterrupted years of rule by the severely nationalistic Colorado Party. And the real power still lies with the Colorado Party, a group that believes Paraguay was destroyed in a hateful, vengeful bloodbath by the combined forces of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. The wounds of this terrible conflict remain open and alive. 

Despite my best efforts I got very little help from official Paraguay when I went along to film and research. I did, however, get huge support from many independent-thinking Paraguayans, intellectuals and academics, who generously let me sift through their archives for all kinds of images. For that I will always be grateful. 

Reflecting on the time I spent in that land, I can only think it was an extraordinary dream sequence. Time spent during the summer months -  months that can kill. That's true. The weather is often described as distinctly sultry and oppressive during the very wet summer months but I doubt anyone is prepared for the strength and depth of a long Paraguay summer. And because of the damp heat, the people move around slowly and listlessly.
For myself, an Anglo-Saxon, one more traveller and filmmaker steeped in the writings of Graham Greeene and other wandering writers and journalists, we are all drawn to Paraguay in search of...what? The strangest destination in South America? ... and all have come away feeling that the place, despite its languor, may just be the real heart of Latin America, or at least a South America different from one besotted with the trappings of modern day consumerism.
The recent article by Tom Templeton again reminds us what the country is all about. But sadly, it may very well be the one country in South America that does not have much in the way of a real future, but just when you think it's all over, along comes a great surprise. The football team fielded during the recent World Cup competition went on and on and on. This is the spirit of a small and feisty land called Paraguay.

Filmmaker's Diary: Part III

A while back, after waiting for some time in line at JFK immigrations, my turn came to stand there and get asked why I wanted to be in the US. I immediately said and immediately regretted saying "for pleasure," but the middle-aged man, hair close-cropped standing erect in the open glass box, cast his eyes over and and then smiled as if he had heard this for the first time and said, "and for pain."

I just stood there. It was as if we were eager for this conversation. We spent a couple of minutes discussing the differences and the similarities of pleasure and pain. I don't remember what I said or indeed what he said. After a minute we got looks of impatience from people in line so I said goodbye and moved on.

Not too many years ago when I looked about for funding for the documentary I planned on the Paraguayan War, I expected in these parts and in these modern times more than just casual interest - not a single documentary film or piece for television on the subject existed. I would be the first. I was excited at the prospect and thought it would not be hard to generate funding. I expected real interest and money to come my way. I was very wrong.

Not a single person or company in any of the countries involved - Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay or Paraguay - had the slightest interest in giving me a penny. Time after time I was reminded that telling the story of a war that certainly killed and maimed tens of thousands on all sides, destroyed the Paraguayan will to prosper, hastened the creation of the Argentine Republic, in time destroyed the Brazilian monarchy and consolidated Uruguay as a free nation state, was still, for all sides, a most shameful and difficult moment to face.

Over the years, for everyone, the event had made heroes of the most unlikable characters and from some unlikely quarters, and a few losers. Events had been shaped and re-shaped beyond recognition, or the memory of these events allowed to wither and die. I knew I had my work cut out just to make the case that making a documentary about this calamitous events was the right thing to do. My struggles were about to begin. I was about to enter a world of pain and pleasure.
- DW


More Praise for
"The Paraguayan War"

This just in from the distinguished scholar Leslie Bethell:

"A very good job should do well in high schools and colleges. My congratulations."
- Leslie Bethell
Woodrow Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar
Emeritus Professor of Latin American History, University of London
Former Director, University of Oxford Centre for Brazilian Studies

And Sra. Liana Gomes Amadeo, head of archives at the National Library of Brazil, sends this:

"It was with pleasure that we received [the film] at the National Library and we thank you for sending the documentary "The Paraguay War." We would like to congratulate you for this initiative, as well as the educational quality and entertaining nature of the work. We consider that the workmanship has great value as an educational tool, very useful as source material in the academic education of our youth."

Filmmaker's Diary: Part II

The decision to go to Humaita, the scene, in Paraguay, of perhaps one of The Marshals greatest defeats, was a decision I'd made and insisted on from the beginning. My producer was not pleased at the prospect - he said it was too far and would cut into our limited time and resources. I told him that coming to Paraguay to make a documentary about the war and not venture to Humaita would make no sense.

I'd had meetings with my Paraguayan producer Alberto Duarte - a wonderful man and a constant source of valuable information who sadly died two years ago of cancer. He assured us we could get there safely enough. The crew, plus Prof. Thomas Whigham and myself, would have to cover some pretty rough ground to get there - real roads would peter out soon after leaving the capital. We were determined to press ahead.

We left Asuncion early the next morning and as we carefully moved along the rough roads and tracks I was struck by the fact that the countryside was almost empty ( was this, so many years later, the aftermath of this terrible war?) Daylight was fading fast as as we drew into the small hamlet of Humaita. At first I thought it was a ghost town but I soon realized there were just a handful of people living in this part of the world. Within minutes we'd met the mayor, who told us that we were the first visitors to Humaita in months. It struck me that this site, in a more developed part of the Western Hemisphere - a place where one of the vital moments in the biggest and bloodiest war in Latin America, would be, at this point, be suffering from a tourism glut.

It seems the powers involved, each in their own way, had decided to create an inflexible, immutable version of events and heroes, or worse, blot this appalling event from national memory.

The guest house at Humaita

Before settling in at the one and only guest house, I wandered down to the edge of the Paraguay River and through the late evening gloom imagined a picture of what it must have looked like over a hundred thirty years ago. Complete darkness fell and a billion mosquitos kept us company. The mayor's wife cooked local food and produced local hooch. Later, the mayor and his brother played guitars and sang - sad songs of Paraguayan pride and despair....
- DW


Filmmaker's Diary: Part I

Making this documentary was not easy. The countries involved (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay) had no real interest in having this episode of history be turned into a film. And making available material for the making of a documentary that would for the first time show the war in great detail was even more difficult. The countries involved have each evolved since the war versions of events that oftentimes bear little resemblance to fact. Each has had its own desire to create heroes - Brazil in its formation of a standing army and the nation; Paraguay, the losing nation, to exalt the figure of Marshal Solano Lopez, who led his nation to inglorious defeat; Argentina, in its desire too to form itself as a nation as the Uruguayans have also done. The victors simply abandoned Paraguay to its fate and over the decades decided that the entire episode was to be swept under the each country's carpet and kept there.

Until now.

And when it came to finding funds, the resistance to making the movie was overwhelming and it took more than two years to finally find the right funding. At first, I was afraid that I would not find a good enough array of photographs, cartoons, paintings, drawings and so forth to flesh out the documentary visually, but I was immensely surprised to find a considerable amount of material in all four countries - principally and to my surprise, in Paraguay. And without the amazing and consistent consultancy of Prof. Thomas Whigham, from the University of Athens, Georgia, I would never have been able to realize the endeavour.
- DW