[19 August 2008]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I saw my own writing when I was investigating these cases,” says Judge Juan Guzmán, “Now, 30 years later, some of my witnesses filed those petitions.” He’s talking about the “more than 10,000 habeas corpus petitions” rejected during Augustus Pinochet’s regime, petitions filed in search of answers, or at least some rudimentary legal assistance, in learning the fates of over 3,000 Chilean citizens who had disappeared. Three decades later, Guzmán is appointed to investigate Pinochet, to bring to light the system of imprisonment, torture, and execution that was for so hidden. “It’s a denial of justice of the judiciary didn’t do anything, ” he says of the petitions he and other judges signed.
Guzmán ‘s sense of tragedy and culpability is laced through Patricio Lanfranco and Elizabeth Farnsworth’s The Judge and the General, which airs 19 August as part of PBS’ POV series. The film follows his inquiry, which, under the Chilean system is categorically his: as Eduardo Contreras, attorney for families of victims, explains, “The same person investigates, tries the case and delivers the sentence.” Guzmán began with precious little background. Monica Gonzalez, a journalist imprisoned under Pinochet, recalls, “He began asking me questions and I realized that he knew almost nothing. He’d created his own world and submerged himself in it.”
Though Guzmán was given very few resources to conduct his work (for the first two years, he had only an old typewriter, no computer), because “the [unnamed] top judges didn’t want his investigation to move forward,” he perseveres, and eventually indicts the former general and president, as well as hundreds of his agents.
The process, begun in 1998, takes years, and the film opens with images on TV that reinforce its difficulty. Guzmán is watching footage from a demonstration following the announcement of the Pinochet indictments, and the rage and fear are much the same as demonstrations surrounding the 1970 coup d’etat that put Pinochet in power, a coup that was made possible, the film indicates, by the U.S., hoping to remove the democratically elected communist Salvador Allende (“Nixon was determined not to allow in his backyard another Castro,” says law professor José Zalaquett). “Communist fagots!,” the furious protestors shout, “They killed your relatives because they were losers!” Guzmán sighs later, “They haven’t learned anything. They don’t care what he did.”
Or maybe they do. The film shows repeatedly that Pinochet was only able to do what he did because so many citizens refused to recognize what was happening—which included not only kidnappings and murders at home, but also what Peter Kornbluh calls “the art of international terrorism,” that is, the rendition of Chilean exiles. Drawing from the model of “the Good German,” Carmen Hertz, attorney at the Vicariate of Solidarity and widow of a Pinochet victim, observes, “The majority of Chileans, especially the middle class, doesn’t want to know,” she says. “It was a form of cowardice. If you don’t know, you don’t have to take a position.” And so, she implies, put yourself in danger or feel responsible for the devastation.
Guzmán ‘s investigation leads him to one couple who lives with such a burden daily. Edita Salvadores de Castro and her husband Angel Castro recall the day agents from DINA (the Directorate of National Intelligence) forced them to reveal the location of their daughter Cecilia, a law student, and her engineering student husband Juan Carlos Rodriguez. The film reenacts in lurid abstraction the walk to Cecilia’s home and the knock on her door, as Edita recalls the choice they were given: to give up Cecilia or have their granddaughter killed. They took the police to Cecilia, she says.
What happened in prison is recalled by Rodriguez’s sister Maria Cecilia, who was also detained (“They strip you and then come the beatings, the electric shock, the obscene fondling”), as well as the DINA torturer, Osvaldo Romo. Now incarcerated at Santiago Penitentiary, Romo is, Guzmán says, “One of the right people to be used for torture, his personality is strange.” Eager to please “whoever he is with,” Romo “had quite a lot of fun when he tortured people. That is something I cannot qualify,” says Guzmán, “I think it’s a sadist way of acting.” To this day, Romo sounds remorseless when describing his efforts to extract information from his victims: “You study intelligence not to by potatoes in the market,” he says. “You study intelligence to develop yourself. Intelligence is a science and an art.”
But as easy as it is to revile such sensational characters, the film insists, quietly and consistently, that Pinochet was only possible because his actions were ignored or condoned by others. A judge in minor misdemeanor cases in 1974, Guzmán recalls that he saw photos of victims shot by soldiers: “I thought honestly they were isolated cases, powerful bullies who went out in the street and just did things on their own.” In his investigation, however, he confronts the reality that he and so many others overlooked during the 1970s.
During the exhumation of Manuel Donoso’s remains in Arica, Guzmán and his team wear bulletproof vests (“Because there were may be people who wanted to harm us”). A 23-year-old sociology professor when he was murdered, Donoso was reported the victim of a truck accident. Guzmán and an examiner take the film crew through the forensic steps that show he was shot in the head (the scene is a little too CSI, but unforgettable too), intercut with the testimony of Donoso’s widow, Monica Moya, recalling what she saw at the time: along with the bruises on his body and an injured right heel, she says, “his cranium was missing.”
The visual strategy here—cutting between then and now—makes clear how hard people had to work to deny what Pinochet was doing. Evidence was everywhere, and, as Hertz asserts, the Vicariate of Solidarity was filing petitions regularly, with files full of documentation. In fact, Guzmán says, these files are invaluable in his case-building now, though he and others disregarded them before. The victims, he says now, “were not terrorists, they were public officials and members of the political parties involved in the Allende government.” They were deemed threats and summarily eradicated. “What reason they were killed for no one can understand.”
The Judge and the General gives Guzmán the opportunity to reflect on his part in the process and to define the perpetrators: “I knew lots of human nature from literature,” he says, “But I had never been face to face with so much evil.” At the same time, the documentary keeps sight of the ugly ironies that shaped this history. It was only when Pinochet greenlighted General Manuel Contreras’ 1976 execution of Orlando Letelier in the United States that the FBI and other U.S. agencies were compelled to protest.
Though Pinochet always held that his subordinates acted on their own (even as he was protecting them and himself by legislating their amnesty), Guzmán pursues the case. In one ingenious maneuver, he declares that the amnesty, circumscribed by dates, does not apply to the disappearances, because “the crimes never ended.” As an object lesson concerning the abuse and expansion of government powers and secrecy, the film is uncomfortably germane for many viewers today, including viewers in the U.S. As focused as they may be on the difficulties and details of their daily lives, all citizens are ultimately responsible.