The Pinochet Case
review by Gregory Avery, 27 September 2002

"This is Pinochet's government," says one man, at the beginning of Patricio Guzmán's documentary, The Pinochet Case, pointing to a bare field in northern Chile where some of the victims who were murdered under the dictator's fifteen-year rule were dumped anonymously. The army general Auguste Pinochet headed the military junta that overthrew the country's democratically-elected president, Salvador Allende, on September 11, 1973: Allende dismissed his staff while he himself remained inside the presidential palace, La Moneta, in the capital of Santiago, while he remained inside as tanks and planes shelled and bombed the building. Allende was trying to institute social reforms in Chile while working within the country's constitution. The reason for his overthrow? He had been elected as a member of the U.P. (Popular Unity) party, made up of Chile's Communist, Radical, and Social-Democratic parties.

After Pinochet assumed power in 1975, he ruled the country under a system of total terror, wherein the secret police, the DINA, arrested, detained, tortured, and murdered thousands of people: a light perusal of the records show that the DINA apparently arrested any and everyone they wanted. Many of their victims became part of a vast body of the "disappeared," people who were arrested and, when their whereabouts were later inquired after, turned out to have no record with the authorities of their arrest or even of their existence. Proof that they had, indeed, been under the custody of the DINA was often only confirmed by other prisoners who had been held in the same facility at the same time. Even before Pinochet left power, under a plebiscite that restored democratic government to Chile in 1990, meticulous dossiers were being assembled and collected on the identities of everyone who became part of the "disappeared," along with other victims of crimes committed under Pinochet's rule.

Pinochet was visiting London -- on what was an annual shopping visit, where he visited the city's best stores -- when Spain moved to have him extradited on charges of genocide and murder: by this time, a 1992 report estimated that over 2,000 people had been killed in Chile between September, 1973 and March, 1990, over a thousand of which had become "disappeared." One of the reasons, an attorney representing the victims tells Guzmán, is simple "solidarity": after the end of the Spanish civil war, arrangements were made for over 2,000 refugees to enter Chile -- the Spanish consulate who made the arrangements was Pablo Neruda, and the government official who received them at the other end, in Valparaiso, was Salvador Allende.

Guzmán has previously made a monumental three-part documentary on the events that occurred in Chile during and after the Allende overthrow, The Battle of Chile, which was released between 1975 and 79: one of the cameramen on his crew was shot and killed while operating a film camera, and Guzmán had to complete post-production on his film abroad, smuggling the footage out under dangerous circumstances. When he returned to Chile in the late 'nineties to make a follow-up documentary, he found many instances where Chileans, young and old, were beginning to forget what had happened under Pinochet's rule. The Pinochet Case emerges, in part, as a film about memory. Guzmán films many of the people who suffered under the dictatorship as they arrived in Spain to give testimony during the legal proceedings, and he records their stories, without sensationalism or reducing them to something flat and dry. We hear how people were taken to the infamous Villa Grimaldi, or to "special detention centers," essentially torture houses set up by the DINA, where detainees were subjected to electrical shock, suffocation, or systematic beatings or sexual assault. Many of the victims were not told why they were arrested, or how long they would be imprisoned. Those who died were disposed of, individually or in mass graves, in the countryside. One of the most moving testimonies comes from a woman who keeps a photo of her son (many of the "disappeared" turn out to have been alarmingly young when they were taken away), in a clear plastic sleeve, in her pocketbook, the religious icon to which she prays every day.

Pinochet was made "senator for life" when he left office, a status that made him immune to legal prosecution, but he was in what amounted to protective custody in a house in London while the British authorities debated over whether to accede to Spain's extradition request. Persons both for and against Pinochet kept up a noisy daily vigil outside the gates of his residence,  with each side, as shown in the film, trying to make as much racket as possible to drown the other side out, as if, by doing so, they could declare themselves the winner. Guzmán shows supporters of Pinochet who say (or reiterate what Pinochet himself said) that it was his subordinates, not he, who were responsible for all those crimes, even that Pinochet helped route the possibility of godless Communism in Chile with a "minimal loss of life." Pinochet even receives a visit from Margaret Thatcher -- no longer a Prime Minister, but now a Baroness -- who tells him, to his face and while news cameras clack away in the background, how much he did for "democracy" in Chile. (The 1973 coup was backed by the C.I.A.; in the 'nineties, the then-present U.S. government forwarded secret documents showing the general's involvement in the suppression of political opposition to Pinochet's prosecutors in Spain.) Meanwhile, floorboards are being yanked up in former "detention center" houses, corpses are found still clad in the clothes they died in, and forensic experts, including a "forensic archaeologist," are piecing together skeletal remains and examining bone fragments that show traces of point-blank gunshots.

In the end, Pinochet would end up leaving Britain -- for Chile, where he was met with a formal reception. On the other hand, the ranks of those calling for Pinochet's accountability for his crimes were being swelled by Chileans who weren't even born, yet, when he first took power. And while showing the survivors of Pinochet's terrible rule, Guzmán ends up revealing something quite unexpected: while what was done to those who tell their stories for his camera was inhuman, inexcusable, and left them with scars they shouldn't have to have, they also seem to have been granted a strength that enables them, now, to fight to make the old monster accountable for the misdeeds that were perpetrated under his regime. The film becomes a document of human resiliency, tried but unthwarted, even after being subjected to the most terrible of ordeals -- of human spirit that people simply refused to have taken away from them.

As of July, 2002, Auguste Pinochet, living under house arrest in Chile, was judged mentally unfit to stand trial by Chile's Supreme Court. Prior to that decision, a statue of Salvador Allende was erected in Santiago, standing between the Judicial Ministry and Government House.

The Pinochet Case is currently held-over at New York's Film Forum; it will be showing at the Northwest Film Center, in Portland, Oregon, on October 3.

Written and
Directed by:

Patricio Guzmán

NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
yet been rated.






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