Judge Juan Guzman among a throng of media, during the documentary "The Judge And The General", about his investigation of the first criminal charges to be brought against Chile's General Augusto Pinochet for numerous tortures and killings of Chilean political opponents and activists during his near-30-year-reign.  The documentary was directed and produced by Patricio Lanfranco and Elizabeth Farnsworth, and was sold-out days in advance during the current San Francisco International Film Festival.

Judge Juan and The Long Fight For Justice In Pinochet's Chile

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

May 7, 2008


This past weekend at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema here there were lines, long lines, stretched around the block.  On Sunday, the film was sold out.  In fact, all the shows for the film were sold out early on.  The screening at the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley sold out five days in advance.  There were long lines of people who could not get in.

The long lines were not for the film "Iron Man", which made over $100 million in its first three days last weekend, but for the documentary "The Judge And The General", about Judge Juan Guzman, the man designated with the task of investigating the many atrocities committed under the regime of General Augusto Pinochet of Chile, who came to power via a brutal coup ousting Salvador Allende, the country's first democratically-elected president, on September 11, 1973.  (Allende reportedly committed suicide shortly after the coup took place, via a gunshot to the head.)  Pinochet's brutality against whom his most ardent supporters called "Communist pigs" was notorious, with thousands of people who simply dared to oppose Pinochet's regime summarily murdered.  Pinochet, a U.S.-backed military man, ended his near-30-year reign in 1999 and was under house arrest in London, England until 2000, and then returned to Chile.  He died in 2006.

In Chile however, amidst rabid support for a military dictator what hasn't died is the pain and memories of a violent, fear-drenched nation during the turbulent 1970's, '80's and '90's.  Patricio Lanfranco and Elizabeth Farnsworth directed and produced "The Judge and The General", and though it has been sold out here at the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival it will be shown on PBS television in the U.S. on the program "P.O.V." on August 19.  As Mr. Lanfranco describes it, the film took its time to be hatched and completed.  " We were working for five years at least, you know, at the end of the process.  And the last two years basically have been a process of addition and post-production," said the independent television producer, director and researcher based in Santiago, Chile.  Mr. Lanfranco, the 2003 recipient of the Chilean National Television Council Award, has been producing film documentaries and television news events for more than two decades, including the live television coverage in 1995 of Manuel Contreras, a Pinochet's former chief of his secret police, on trial for the 1976 assassination of Orlando Letelier, former Chilean ambassador to the U.S., in Washington, D.C.  Mr. Lanfranco's film chronicles the solitary journey of a judge with the weight of the world and victim's families on his shoulders.  This is not a burden for the judge -- certainly Ms. Farnsworth and Mr. Lanfranco's documentary doesn't intimate that -- it is a quest, a challenge filled with twists and turns, offering audiences a lot of food for thought, with interviews with surviving family members whose loved ones had been killed during Pinochet's dictatorship. 

So just how did Judge Juan Guzman become the designee for this undertaking on behalf of the victims of General Pinochet's decades-long reign? 

"Juan was involved because we decided that in 2003 that it was a very interesting moment in (the) human rights situation happened in Chile.  After so many years the courts, the trials didn't do anything about this situation and because Chile changed the way of how to provide justice, there was a conflict between the new justice and the old justice (system).  So it has to be so, because otherwise all these cases that had been lasting for 30 years were going to be definitely lost.  So there was a situation where a special judge had to be appointed to really push for the resolution of these cases," said Mr. Lanfranco.  After Judge Guzman was appointed, the approach to the cases was very different, with expedited investigating on each matter.  Prior to being appointed with the task of this enormous undertaking, Judge Guzman had handled "more than a thousand cases", according to Mr. Lanfranco. 

As stated earlier, Mr. Lanfranco and Ms. Farnsworth's journey towards what is now "The Judge and The General" took deliberate paths, with some differences and commonalities.  "Patricio and I -- I mean, one of the things we've discovered in preparing for these interviews and doing the interviews is we've been wanting to do something like this -- each of us for our own reasons -- for years.  And this gave us a chance to do it," said Ms. Farnsworth, a seasoned journalist, substitute news anchor and special correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (1995-2000) who has covered events all over the world, including in Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Chile, Haiti, Vietnam, Gaza and the West Bank.  Ms. Farnsworth, who is based in the East Bay in Northern California, has also lived in Peru and Chile and written many in-depth stories and opinion pieces in numerous publications across the U.S., including Mother Jones, World Policy Journal, The Nation and the San Francisco Chronicle.  She has also produced numerous award-winning documentaries on AIDS in African countries, Chile's election campaign of 1970 (in which Mr. Allende was elected as president) and the Vietnam war.  Currently she can be seen as a freelancing special correspondent on the NewsHour.  She and Patricio have worked together on and off for a number of years.  "I've always been obsessed -- for reasons I don't know -- with the whole concept of the good German," Ms. Farnsworth said.  "How does a good person -- why can a good person -- how do they explain to themselves when they look the other way when terrible things happen?"

Amidst the hubbub of the Film Society's Festival headquarters earlier this week the producer-directors talked about Judge Juan Guzman.  Both had an opportunity to discuss numerous things prior to a questioner's arrival, and at several moments the conversation became an observation of two filmmakers fascinated by the complex questions about Pinochet, the families of his victims, the political landscape of Chile and the long quest for justice that the judge took on.

"Judge Juan Guzman was a good person -- the son of a poet.  His father knew Pablo Neruda, his father knew Salvador Allende.  But his -- Guzman's family supported the coup against Allende and supported Pinochet.  And I thought that my own obsessions meshed with this story.  This is why I wanted to make a film about it," said Ms. Farnsworth.  "And (Patricio's) obsessed with the nature of hope.  Right?" 

Mr. Lanfranco agreed.

"It is amazing when you are under this situation of stress of a dictatorship.  You were underground and you know, so many people were killed, and fear dominates the picture -- how do people keep hopes under that situation?  How do people fight?  How do people have the strength to fight back?"  Mr. Lanfranco then mentions a "Sophie's Choice" (for lack of a better description) dilemma for Edita, one of the survivors of General Pinochet's reign of terror, who in "The Judge and The General" recalls being confronted with the unholy option of either surrendering her daughter or her granddaughter, one of whom would be killed by Pinochet hired-guns.  Edita chose to let her own daughter go.  Her daughter was murdered by Pinochet's firebrands, leaving Edita's infant granddaughter to live.  It was a choice that obviously presented deep conflict and torment for Edita and she talks about this during the documentary. 

The granddaughter whose life was spared is Valentina, who has now grown up and become a highly-talented journalist in her own right and presently lives with Edita.  Valentina, currently on maternity leave, will at some point write a book about her experiences during the pains and strains of a dictatorship.  Understandably, as Mr. Lanfranco disclosed, Valentina did not want to talk about anything concerning the past when the filmmaker initially approached her four years ago.  Now, Valentina, who has a child and another on the way, is a happier person, transformed by motherhood and the gift of giving life.  "Valentina now is taking care of her grandmother and the last time that I saw them, you couldn't believe it . . . the kid was running around . . . and Valentina was smiling all the time," said Mr. Lanfranco, who had tried to talk to her on several occasions.  "It's very moving.  It's very moving.  I mean, that's what you fight for, at the end.  You know that you leave a lot of people behind but new generations and new people came to find them, and that's very interesting."

Just as interesting are the questions that a viewer inevitably has after seeing the film.  For one, why did so many people in Chile have such deep and abiding reverence for General Pinochet, whom even right up to his final days of life insisted that he had not ordered so much as even one killing of fellow countrymen and women who had differing or opposing political beliefs?  Was it out of fear?  Or fanaticism?

"It's a great question, and by the way, I've been asked this by everyone," said Ms. Farnsworth, who said that she would always alert her questioners to wait for Mr. Lanfranco's response to the question.  "This is a really interesting thing to analyze."

Which the Chilean-born Mr. Lanfranco promptly does, right on cue, and in some detail. 

"You have to understand, you know, the whole picture of this.  There was a moment you know, in the seventies where the different ideas -- the working class idea, Socialists and all that.  So Allende won and this was the first Socialist president elected in the world -- democratically elected.  And then became all these military dictatorship(s) in all of South America.  Chile was the last country that got under the military dictators -- Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Peru, Bolivia -- all these countries were surrounded, you know, Allende's government, the Chile of that moment -- by these right-wing military dictatorship.  And then the Chileans came into the picture as a dictatorship (with Pinochet's overthrow of Allende) -- a lot of hate, you know?  Because the society was totally divided, totally polarized.  And then what happened, you know, there was a huge revenge, and massive killing and fear and all that, but the worser part of this society . . . they were actually living better.  They were earning money.  And they were collecting power and companies, you know.  Pinochet privatized most of the companies (that were) owned by the state.  All the companies that belonged to the state, from the post office to the trains were privatized and given to private hands -- for nothing.  So they create a huge, let's say, power in people that didn't have the brain to have it.  So they defended Pinochet because they gave it a lot -- let's say about twenty percent of the population -- they have all of the power, they never have a problem, and they have impunity to do whatever they wanted -- treat people in a really bad way.  All the labor laws were been totally taken away.  So the powerful people had all the right to exploit the workers.

"So that's why they loved Pinochet," said Mr. Lanfranco.  "When suddenly you've got all the power, you became God in your own town, in your neighborhood, in every little place that you had, you became a god, a king . . . and there are people that really believe in this kind of thing, you know, free market and they don't know exactly what it means, but they really believe and they really think that Pinochet gave them that."

Today, history come full circle.  Thirty-six years after Salvador Allende's election to office as Chile's first democratically elected Socialist leader in 1970, Michelle Bachelet, a moderate Socialist whose father was murdered under the rule of Pinochet, is now Chile's president, the first woman to be elected to that office in the country's history.  President Bachelet took office in March 2006, defeating billionaire businessman and former senator Sebastian Pinera, a centrist-right wing politician, in a runoff election.  If one looks at Wikipedia online they will see that Ms. Bachelet is an accomplished surgeon, pediatrician, epidemiologist who has studied military strategy and speaks five languages. 

By all observations Chile today, Mr. Lanfranco would agree, represents the heartbeat of sons and daughters who have survived the past and thrived in the liberation of the present, under a daughter who has risen to power to represent them.  Judge Juan Guzman, who has been lauded in Chile by surviving families for his courage and steadfast approach during the investigations of murder under Pinochet, remains alive and well, but not unaffected by a long journey for truth and justice.

"The Judge And The General" played for three consecutive nights at the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival this week to sell-out crowds.  The documentary, which is directed and produced by Patricio Lanfranco and Elizabeth Farnsworth, is one hour and twenty-two minutes in length and will be shown in the United States on PBS stations on the program "P.O.V." on August 19.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  PopcornReel.com.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.


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