On Sept. 11, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet led a successful military coup against the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende and proceeded to rule Chile for the next 17 years. Pinochet was viewed benignly by the U.S. government as a bulwark against encroaching communism in our hemisphere. He was also a brutal fascist dictator who oversaw the arrest and torture of up to 3,000 Chilean citizens. Some of his victims survived, but many of them simply disappeared, leaving behind no trace either physically or as a matter of record.
This documentary by Patricio Guzman is the story of the legal struggle to put Pinochet on trial. It’s a tale of triumphs and reversals, alternately inspiring and frustrating. It begins with Pinochet in 1998, now a retired, doddering old man living the good life, making his annual shopping trip to London. Unaware or unconcerned that forces which could lead to his extradition and trial have been put in motion by a Spanish judge, he lingers in the city long enough to have a back operation and is arrested immediately afterward. Pinochet and his lawyers figure that the matter will be favorably settled in a few days, since heads of state, former or otherwise, traditionally have more immunity than God. Instead he spends nearly a year and a half in house arrest while his case is argued in the British Parliament, the tedium of his incarceration broken by a friendly visit from his old ally Margaret Thatcher.
This is also a film that gives a voice to many of those who were tortured under the Pinochet regime. As the stories of the survivors grow increasingly grim, one is made aware of how torture is not merely a matter of coercion through pain but also a systematic process of dehumanization, of turning the victim into a thing. The cumulative effect of these grisly tales is dispiriting, but the slow grind of justice offers some hope. It’s a small hope, but an undeniable one.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].