Chile Reception

By Klawans, Stuart | The Nation, September 30, 2002 | Go to article overview

Chile Reception

Klawans, Stuart, The Nation

The Pinochet Case

Walking at a good New Yorker's clip, you would need about fifteen minutes to go between Film Forum and the World Trade Center site: a straight shot down Varick Street from three cozy screening rooms and fresh-made popcorn to the remains of a mass grave. I sketch this geography to suggest what September 11, 2001, meant to the Film Forum staff, and to clarify the meaning of their decision to commemorate the other September 11 attack: the one that killed Salvador Allende in 1973.

The calendar links these two events, and so too does the roughest kind of arithmetic. About as many people died at the World Trade Center as were snatched up and murdered by the Pinochet regime. Because the United States helped install and maintain that dictatorship, you might imagine that Film Forum is also connecting these Septembers politically. You would not be entirely wrong; after presenting Patricio Guzman's new documentary, The Pinochet Case (on view through September 24), the theater will continue its Chilean theme by showing The Trials of Henry Kissinger. But if you know the Manhattan streets, you will realize this schedule doesn't mean to explain--or, worse, to excuse--the criminals who destroyed the Twin Towers. Rather, the Film Forum staff have added sorrow to sorrow, looking beyond themselves and their neighbors to others who are neglected at this moment. Generosity inspires this programming choice, along with hope--precisely the qualities that shine through The Pinochet Case.

If you remember the dangerous immediacy of Guzman's now-classic The Battle of Chile, you may be surprised to see The Pinochet Case begin as a landscape film. Guzman sets the tone by showing views of mountains under a clear blue sky, as glimpsed from a car on a lonely highway. A little time passes before the car reaches its destination: a site where corpses were dumped. Two fully clothed men, breathing and fidgeting, lie on the ocher ground to show where the remains were found. By the very inadequacy of their imposture, these surrogates hint at a horror you can't imagine; and maybe they suggest as well that this place belongs to the living. Nothing is left of the victims except for a few fragments--precious to the forensic experts--and the memories borne by their families, who have come here with Guzman so they can testify to what cannot be seen or heard. A woman speaks of her missing son, meanwhile fingering a photograph that she has slung around her neck. A man recalls his missing brother by reciting a song lyric by Victor Jara: "The spring will come from your heart." He says the line several times over; and somehow, in this place of natural beauty and man-made bitterness, he doesn't choke on the words.

The Pinochet Case belongs to witnesses like these. They sit for their portraits, singly or in groups, sometimes while the moving camera seems to caress their faces. They talk about whatever was hardest for them to endure. (For Nelly, it was admitting that her missing husband would never use the suitcase she packed for him. For Gabriela, who was tortured and raped, it was seeing others killed.) Above all, these witnesses hold out. "My revenge," Luisa says, "is just staying alive."

Not subsisting--staying alive. For Luisa and other witnesses, that meant compiling data that Chilean society preferred to ignore, pressing lawsuits that Chilean courts refused to hear, seeking justice that seemed unattainable even after Pinochet stepped down. Underneath the forms of democracy, as one witness explains, Chile remained unchanged, since the thousands who had cooperated in state terror were still around, still powerful, still unwilling to see their deeds uncovered. And yet, "The spring will come from your heart." The witnesses went on expecting justice--and suddenly, in 1998, they got it.

Narrating the story with brisk reverence for its heroes, The Pinochet Case explains how Spanish prosecutor Carlos Castressana ingeniously recognized that "crimes against humanity" are by definition the business of all courts everywhere. …

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