It’s hard to walk away unaffected from this heartfelt, well-researched, feature-length documentary tracing the background as well as the facts surrounding former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s arrest in England and eventual return to Chile. Award-winning veteran documaker Patricio Guzman (“The Battle for Chile,” “The Southern Cross,” “Chile, the Stubborn Memory”) is far from a typical Critics Week director, except in his ever-youthful fighting spirit against the injustice he documents so well. The film is a must-have for pubcasters dedicated to informing their viewers.
Opening on a team digging for the bodies of people who disappeared without a trace during the Pinochet regime from 1973 to 1990, Guzman immediately positions the film on the side of the victims and declares pic’s intention to be that of indicting an assassin. This he does very convincingly in a series of moving interviews with the survivors of torture and relatives of those who never came back.
According to official counts, 1,198 Chileans vanished in these years after being picked up by death squads in unmarked cars. One woman says that 19 members of her extended family disappeared this way. Authorities at that time denied they had ever been arrested, even when relatives could trace them to places like the infamous Villa Grimaldi, a torture center from which only 20 out of 60 prisoners returned alive. The women’s testimony is crucial in explaining why it is not possible or ethical to simply pardon the aging, infirm dictator in the name of national unity. As one woman says, having undergone torture and watched the atrocious deaths of others, she cannot find any dignity for her suffering in a country where the torturers are enjoying a dignified retirement.
Pic gradually swings into a documentary reconstruction of Pinochet’s unexpected arrest in London in September 1998 at the request of Spanish authorities demanding his extradition on charges of the torture and death of Spanish citizens. Although the House of Lords voted against giving him immunity as a former head of state and hearings went forward for his extradition to Spain, the film describes how politicians got the upper hand over the judiciary, led by Margaret Thatcher and other Pinochet supporters who are devastatingly depicted, cooking their own gooses without editorial comment from Guzman. After 503 days of confinement at a London clinic, Pinochet was sent home by the government of Tony Blair for health reasons.
Things had changed in Chile, however, in his absence. Over 200 cases had been started against him, and the polls showed that 70% of the population wanted him to be put on trial.
He was placed under house arrest on Jan. 29 of this year, giving pic an upbeat, hopeful ending.