Under the mandate of General Efraín Ríos Montt, a notorious Guatamelan strongman who belongs in the company of Augusto Pinochet and Slobodan Milosevic, over 200 residents of Dos Erres — men, women, kids, elderly — were murdered on or about 12.6.82. The killers were an elite Guatamelan special forces unit, known as the Kaibiles. The killings were part of Montt’s scorched-earth policy, under which up to 200,000 indigenous and Mayan people died.

Wiki page excerpt: “[The Kaibiles] bashed the smallest children’s heads against walls and trees, and killed the older ones with hammer blows to the head. Their bodies were dumped in a well. The commandos interrogated the men and women one by one, then shot or bashed them with the hammer, and dumped them in the well. They raped women and girls, and ripped the fetuses out of pregnant women.”

Last night I caught a screening of Ryan Suffern‘s Finding Oscar (Film Rise, 4.21), a Steven Spielberg-sponsored doc about a long investigation of this notorious genocide. The invited crowd was obviously affected, impressed. So was I up to a point. It tells a horrific story but also an emotional one, and the combination works for the most part. But I was slightly bothered by Suffern’s emphasis on a humanistic, up-with-people, we-can-get-past-this approach.

Justice finally caught up with the bad guys 30 years later, but I didn’t want to be comforted or told “there, there.” I wanted, rather, to immerse myself in the details of this Central American horror. I wanted to sink into this realm and sort it all out like a special prosecutor. I wanted to channel the spirit of Jean-Louis Trintignant in Z.

Finding Oscar is not so much a detailed investigation of a massacre as an attempt to convey the emotions beneath it — the guilt shared by two older men who participated, the satisfaction and catharsis felt by investigators as they sifted through thousands of pieces of evidence over the years, and especially the emotions of two boys who escaped this slaughter and are now in their late 30s — Ramiro Cristales and particularly Oscar Ramirez, who now lives in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Suffern’s doc provides most of the facts and particulars, but it doesn’t dwell upon the evildoers and their punishments. On 8.2.11 a Guatamelan high court found four of the Kaibiles — Manuel Pop, Reyes Collin Gualip, Daniel Martínez Hernández and Lieutenant Carlos Carías — guilty of the massacre. They were sentenced to over 6,000 years each. On 3.12.12 another perpetrator — Pedro Pimentel Rios — was sentenced to a symbolic 6,060 years for his part in the murders. It was my impression last night that Suffern gave rather short shrift to this aspect.

Why is the doc called Finding Oscar? Because Suffern and producer Frank Marshall became convinced early on that that the journey of Oscar Ramirez delivers an emotional payoff. And they figured that might generate interest. This despite the fact that (a) Oscar remembers absolutely nothing about the massacre, (b) resultantly gives no evidence about the perpetrators and never really examines the particulars (or at least not on camera), (c) never confronts the murderers or their descendants and (d) can’t even return to the scene of the crime due to travel restrictions.

Oscar Ramirez was three years old at the time of the massacre. Investigations uncover the fact that he was saved from death by one of the Kaibile perpetrators, and then raised by this man’s family. Oscar then migrated to the U.S. illegally, and eventually got married and had kids. He doesn’t remember a single thing about the killings, but he was physically there and is therefore a kind of “living witness.”

For the life of me I can’t understand the significance of this, or for that matter the decision to call the doc Finding Oscar. All I can figure is that the movie wants to celebrate the fact that Oscar survived and got married and knows where he came from and what almost happened, etc. It wants everyone to contemplate the fact that it’s better to live a good life than to be murdered at age three.

What Suffern and Marshall seem to really care about is not so much exposing the horror of what Montt and his henchmen did, but the victims coming to terms with their memories, and particularly coming to a place of healing. Because healing is good and healthy. The doc cares about Oscar connecting with his biological dad, a Dos Erres resident who was somewhere else when the soldiers invaded. It cares about Oscar’s smile and green eyes, and about his wife and children and, yes, the fact that limited justice has been meted out. But Finding Oscar doesn’t embrace what you might call a Costa-Gavras or Oliver Stone-type approach. It’s more into hugging and feeling relief and giving thanks to serendipity than anything else.

Finding Oscar will open this Friday at the Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 and Laemmle’s Monica Film Center.