NORITA (dir. Jayson McNamara): The Mother of All Struggles
It wasn’t until our third or fourth time watching the opening moments of Norita that we noticed the pin.
Nora Cortiñas is lit, made up, miked up, and ready for her interview. She’s a small bundle of purposeful, grandmotherly energy in her white blouse and black sweater, green eye shadow and cloud of silver hair. And she’s taking advantage of a pause in the action to make a phone call, chatting with someone offscreen as she dials. This is a woman, we will soon learn, who is never not multitasking.
Not that she’s particularly good at it, and who is, really? While recounting an anecdote about attending a recent protest, she dials a number on her cell phone but does not press “call.” Someone off-camera points this out, and her story is interrupted as she locates and pushes the right button. “Norita” (the diminutive, affectionate nickname for this diminutive, beloved activist) continues: “I received so much affection. So many hugs, kisses, photos. So, so many that at one point I thought of taking off my headscarf.”
Nora is the most famous of the white kerchief–wearing Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo—Argentina’s movement of women fighting for justice for their children who were among the 30,000 people disappeared, tortured and murdered by the dictatorship of the 1970s. They’ve been marching around and around the square outside the seat of government in Buenos Aires every Thursday since 1977.
And somehow, despite the fact that we’ve been in her presence for only a few seconds, her complaint doesn’t come off as self-serving. You can tell that she’s used to being the centre of attention and considers it an annoyingly necessary part of the work—the work of leading one of the iconic human rights struggles of the late 20th and early 21st century.
But about that pin: it’s a standard-issue protest accessory. In this case, the universal symbol for “no,” with its red circle and slash through the words “IMF,” “Debt” and “G20.” The scene must have been shot in 2018, when Nora was leading the charge at huge protests against Donald Trump’s visit to the G20 summit in Argentina. The fact that she’s wearing it conveys something essential about this 92-year-old revolutionary, and the beautifully crafted film that bears her name.
Norita explores the most intimate nexus of the personal and political, a powerful story of transformation and connection. Nora was, by her own account, a relatively conventional middle-class housewife in the 1970s, until her son Gustavo got involved in leftist politics and a U.S.-backed dictatorship seized control of the country. His disappearance by the state, and the complicity of the Catholic church and other institutions, radicalized her and a growing cohort of other mothers. Nora took the rage and grief of her own loss—the amputated limb of a missing child whose body was never found—and transmuted it into an inexhaustible source of fuel, powering the commitment to activism that would define the rest of her life.
This movement of mothers (known in the streets simply as “Las Madres”) had as many tendencies and political pathways as it had members. And this being Argentina, and the political left, there were splits and fractures and grinding debates over the decades. But for Nora and many others it was a gateway—an invitation to connect the dots, seek root causes, and turn the search for the missing ones into a quest for justice for all.
The film shows Nora’s evolution brilliantly. Through her search for Gustavo, she was herself radicalized, eventually fully embracing the cause for which he and his generation paid the ultimate price: the struggle against the institutions and structures of predatory, patriarchal capitalism. As the symbolic power of Las Madres and their iconic white kerchiefs grew, and Nora’s commitment to her son’s revolutionary politics grew with it, she made connections among the many struggles in Argentina—both during the dictatorship and in the decades since. Today she’s a living legend, a matriarch whose latest nickname is “the mother of all struggles.”
By wearing that pin—or by forgetting to take it off—Nora reminds us that all the struggles are connected, because all the crises are connected. And the work of healing through struggle is connected too: globally, generationally, in our communities, in ourselves.
Norita is on one level a straightforward biography, with access to the private life of its very public subject. In McNamara’s nimble hands, the film is a tightly wrapped braid, weaving the story of Nora’s historic struggle in tight spirals around present-tense Nora, in all her 92-year-old activist glory, still on the streets and now a cherished icon in a new moment of political upheaval. But appropriate for a movement leader who seems quite allergic to personality-based politics, this biography is all about situating its subject in a web of connections: historical and political, crossing issues and generations.
The present-day movement on the streets in the film is Argentina’s exhilarating feminist uprising, a youthful rebellion that confronted a stultified political and religious elite to win the country’s landmark legislation legalizing abortion in 2021. Argentina became the largest country in Latin America to do so, and the movement represented a dam-breaking moment globally, as the “Green Wave” swept across other countries in the region and beyond.
This surging movement is proud to show its roots: The Green Wave’s symbol is a green kerchief, emblazoned with a graphic of a white one.
Nora’s current status lies somewhere between revolutionary godmother and cherished elder rock star. Her enduring presence grounds Argentina’s 21st century feminist revolution in the original battle against neoliberalism that was exported with blood and fire to Latin America by the Chicago Boys and other economic-evangelical followers of Milton Friedman in the 1970s.
Indeed, the abortion rights struggle in Argentina is a consciously intersectional one, connecting the dots between the deaths of impoverished, racialized women at the hands of institutionalized misogyny and the landscape of deep economic inequality on which the battle is playing out.
The film is explicit but never didactic as it traces these rippling connections down through the years. And it’s impossible not to be moved: it is such a powerful narrative. A youth movement in the 70s fought fascism in the streets, was kidnapped, tortured, thrown alive from helicopters into the Rio de la Plata for the crime of daring to dream of a society built on cooperation and equality. A generation of mothers took up that fight—first, merely as parents, beseeching and bereaved; but then, for some, as political actors themselves, continuing the struggle of their murdered children against every injustice of a cruel and corrupt system. With their trademark persistence and commitment, they circled the Plaza de Mayo for decades while new generations emerged to march with them and win new victories that would have been unthinkable when Las Madres were young.
When Nora and the other Madres decided one day in the late 70s to wear cloth diapers as headscarves, they were playing quite consciously with the iconography of traditional motherhood. The “pañuelo blanco” was a shield, a challenge, a savvy and subversive claim to the fundamental moral force of motherhood: the sacred duty of care for the most vulnerable.
In our current era of youth-led climate strikes and racial justice uprisings confronting rising authoritarianism and cascading, connected crises, Norita is a beacon and a reminder: “the mother of all struggles” still walks among us, shining with commitment to radical care, deep connection, and the enduring wisdom of the young.
Avi Lewis & Naomi Klein
Norita (Work in Progress) screens Sunday, May 7 at 5 PM at VIFF Centre. For tickets, Click Here