Engineering has always been in Robert Bahar’s blood. The 1998 electrical engineering graduate is the son of the late professor emeritus of mechanical engineering and mechanics Leon Bahar. But the way that Robert uses his degree is entirely his own.
Bahar is an award-winning documentarian, most recently the co-director and co-producer of “The Silence of Others,” a film that chronicles the fight of Spaniards who lived under General Franco’s dictatorship to force the country to reckon with his crimes and to help heal. The film, which Bahar made with his wife, Spanish filmmaker Almudena Carracedo, has won dozens of awards for its storytelling and filmmaking.
Bahar’s first steps towards engineering started in high school and community theater, where he helped operate lighting and sound boards. He considered pursuing academic programs for Broadway lighting design, but his parents convinced him that he could do more with a foundation in engineering.
“They knew that if I got an engineering degree, I could still find a way to go work on Broadway if I really wanted to,” he says. “But if I had just gone for the appropriate lighting degree, my options would be limited.”
As a student at Drexel, Bahar continued to find ways to use his skills in lighting and sound design, working with Drexel University Television and securing an internship with KYW-TV. While taking a class in the Pennoni Honors College on sociology, Bahar attended a field trip to Chester, a predominantly low-income Black community that had also become home to the waste treatment facilities for Delaware Country.
“It was clear to me that this was a case of environmental racism,” Bahar says. “I wanted to tell the story, but it required a longer format, so it didn’t work for TV. And so, George McCollough, who was running DUTV, and Dave Jones, a film professor, helped me turn the project into a feature-length documentary. It was then that I really became passionate about the format as a means of storytelling.”
After graduating from Drexel, Bahar attended graduate school in film at USC in Los Angeles. There, he met Carracedo. The two started both a romance and a working partnership. Their first project, “Made in L.A.,” follows three Latina immigrants who fought clothing retailer Forever 21 for worker’s rights after working in garment sweatshops. But it’s Carracedo’s family history that inspired “The Silence of Others.”
“Her parents’ generation grew up under Franco’s dictatorship,” he explains. “They had hopes for what would happen and how Spain would change under a democracy. But that didn’t really fully happen, and there’s this disillusionment among that generation. [Carracedo] had always wanted to explore those shadows that were remaining from the dictatorship.”
As they were starting work on the project, they were living in Brooklyn and receiving newspapers from Spain. They learned of an international lawsuit filed in Argentina where Spanish nationals were seeking justice for crimes committed during Franco’s reign, including those where babies were taken from “undesirable” families – from the poor or those who spoke out against the dictatorship.
“We had just had our daughter, and these cases struck us very deeply and personally,” he says. “We realized that following these cases could help us show that the legacy of the dictatorship doesn’t just go away when the regime ends. It lives in the culture forever, especially if it’s not dealt with.”
The pair moved to Spain in 2012 to work on the documentary and filmed more than 450 hours of footage over the next six years.
“The cinema verite format was critical to show that these things are not in the past. They are very much the present,” he says. “There are still people suffering the effects of this. There’s a person in the documentary – a victim of torture as a student activist in the late 60s – who says that he lives on a street that is named after one of Franco’s generals. It’s like the debate on Confederate statues in the United States: how can we acknowledge and learn from the dark parts of our history without giving the impression that we’re celebrating them?”
That universal aspect of grappling with history has helped audiences and critics around the world connect with the documentary, which won the 2019 Goya Award for Best Documentary Film, Best Documentary at the 2020 News & Documentary Emmys and the 2020 George Foster Peabody Award for Documentary, among others. It’s now available for streaming on Netflix, where Bahar hopes that more people will be able to learn from it.
In the meantime, Bahar is planning his next project, which while he’s not ready to share all the details of yet, he knows he’ll be able to manage because of his engineering background.
“Producing a film is like building a matrix,” he says. “You have all of these different elements. It's almost like an optimization problem of some kind: you have all of these different elements and you're trying to get the right budget, the right schedule…everything has to line up at exactly the same moment for it all to come together. Add to that the very practical aspects of knowing acoustics, soldering my own cables, and things like that, and my engineering background really comes in handy on a daily basis.”