The Pinochet Case

*** (A must see)

Directed by Patricio Guzman

For a person undergoing torture, Elaine Scarry writes in her book The Body in Pain, everything is reduced to a “crushingly blank and uniform wall.” Intense pain precipitates “the uncreating of the created world,” and the self disintegrates. In this immensely moving 2001 documentary, director Patricio Guzman makes eloquent use of common cinematic devices to restore the destroyed selfhood of victims of Augusto Pinochet’s repressive regime in Chile.

Guzman opens The Pinochet Case, receiving its Chicago premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week, with several neutral conventional shots. The first shows the Chilean desert from a moving car, the next two the car moving through the landscape from afar. But at the end of the third shot a voice-over delivers a rude shock: “Each body we find…” There’s a cut to a group of walking searchers, and we hear that two nude corpses were found at this nondescript spot. Our sense that a terrible past can be present in even the most ordinary locale haunts the rest of the film.

We learn a bit later that Pinochet’s military dictatorship used techniques against its presumed political opponents modeled on those devised by the Nazis, whose victims were often made to disappear without a trace as a way of terrorizing the population. Chileans were arrested by plainclothesmen in unmarked cars; if the family didn’t witness the arrest, they weren’t told of it. When inquiries were made about a person who’d vanished, the reply was “That man was never born”; when it was asked if someone might be in the notorious torture compound Villa Grimaldi, the reply was “Villa Grimaldi does not exist.”

Guzman searches for images to fill the void the regime left. He shows close-ups of soil being sifted for remains; the bone fragments discovered are both brutal reminders of the impossibility of retrieving the dead and evidence of the victims’ existence. Villa Grimaldi is shown in photos, a model, and a victim’s hand-drawn floor plan. A montage of images of the massive files on the murdered–whose number the Chilean government now puts at more than 3,000–assembled by the Catholic church and human rights activists is followed by the face of one of the dead, and then many more, as Guzman literally humanizes these musty records.

Claude Lanzmann in his magnificent Holocaust documentary, Shoah (1985), shows no historical footage of corpses because his subject is the absence that the Shoah created. Guzman takes the opposite approach: he gives us presences. While the survivors’ images in Lanzmann’s film have a kind of neutrality, which focuses attention on his subjects’ words, Guzman gives the talking-head shot–that most banal of compositions–a renewed vividness. Filming the testimony of survivors and victims’ families, he makes them the center of time, sometimes in long takes, and of space, sometimes by subtly pivoting his camera around them. Whereas torture alienates victims from their bodies, Guzman reunites body and being.

Guzman individuates the victims of Pinochet’s regime by presenting their accounts differently. Echoing the director’s search, a mother looks through her purse for the picture of “my saint” taken a week before he vanished; the climax is a close-up of the photograph. Another woman not only describes but shows the suitcase she kept for years in the hope she would find her husband in a camp somewhere and be able to bring him a few necessities. In a tight close-up, a man describes having electrodes attached to his toes, eyes, and penis. In an almost painfully long head-on take, a woman talks about her futile attempt to avoid being raped by arguing that she was a political prisoner. She points out that the notion that “we weren’t people” made her rape possible, but her lively mix of smiles and tears reveals that she’s nonetheless kept her humanity.

General Pinochet took power in a bloody military coup on September 11, 1973, with an assault on the presidential palace during which elected president Salvador Allende reportedly committed suicide to elude capture. Guzman, an Allende supporter who’d made films about the changes he’d fostered, fled to Spain after a brief imprisonment; he now lives in Paris. Pinochet’s regime lasted until 1990, when he stepped down after losing a plebiscite, though he remained in Chile. In 1998–after two years of court proceedings in Madrid, including the testimony of hundreds of survivors–Pinochet was arrested in London (where he’d gone on his annual shopping trip) and held for extradition to Spain, an incident that precipitated the film’s making. The Spanish court ruled that his crimes in Chile could be tried in Spain, but Britain–after agreeing to extradition in principle–allowed Pinochet to return to Chile as medically unfit to stand trial. He then faced charges in Chile, but after the film’s completion a Chilean court ruled that he was too ill to be tried. The London material here, much of it transferred to film from video Guzman shot, is less moving than the rest but provides an important contrast: the extraordinary pain the Pinochet regime inflicted is in no way explained by Pinochet’s banal tastes (he liked to shop at Harrod’s) and nondescript face.

Margaret Thatcher is seen, in publicity footage she commissioned, visiting the ex-dictator in London after his arrest; in an Orwellian moment she pronounces him the man “who brought democracy to Chile.” But mostly the wider context is missing: America’s role in the coup and later support of Pinochet go unmentioned. But the absence of historical specifics intensifies the focus on the loss of self universal to torture victims and their attempts to reverse that process. In London anti-Pinochet demonstrators wear white masks, symbolizing the disappeared, and Pinochet is seen covering his face as he leaves court–a reversal of the way Villa Grimaldi prisoners were systematically blindfolded. Much later in the film, during a demonstration in Santiago, a woman screams out the sickening story of her father’s torture-murder, adding, “I show my face because I’m proud of my father”–and challenging Pinochet’s sons to do the same.

Scarry writes eloquently about the ways both the “structure” and “content” of the torture room are “converted into a weapon.” But in another partial reversal of victims’ loss of self Guzman shows us the torture rooms today, abandoned and in ruins–monoliths to the prisoners, they’re in actuality no more permanent than any other human structure. Guzman also contrasts these dirty rooms with the site of the ruling that Pinochet could be extradited: an ornate, immaculate House of Lords chamber in London, which we see being vacuumed. And near the film’s end a monumental Allende statue is shown on its way to installation in Santiago, another banned image restored.

Early in the film Guzman assembles 23 survivors in a room, standing or sitting in two rows for a head-on group portrait. But the camera pivots around them very slightly, continuing the motion of the previous shot at a slower pace and in the opposite direction–a shot that pivoted around an empty courtroom as the voice-over described justice denied. One critic has called the group a Greek chorus, but in fact we see them testify only as individuals after the portrait shot. After four such accounts, Guzman pans in close-up across many of the faces, changing direction on occasion in a searching movement that suggests the group we see is only a small portion of a labyrinth of victims.

Much later, in the moving final image, Guzman returns to the group portrait but with the camera no longer moving. Part of what’s affecting is the divided meaning the image carries: it both reminds us of the horrors no “justice” can ever undo and reunites individual sufferers in a stable shot no longer linked to a courtroom. Immediately following accounts by two survivors speaking with pride of their visibility, this image invokes restoration achieved, a society made whole again.