Sept. 11 footage included at the start of Rodrigo Vanquez’s “Condor: Axis of Evil” dates not from Sept. 11, 2001, but rather from Sept. 11, 1973, when a military coup overthrew Salvadore Allende’s socialist regime in Chile and installed the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Only much later does pic get back to the present day, as it finishes connecting highly provocative dots that stretch from Pinochet to Saddam Hussein, implicating the U.S. government as a key supporter of controversial terror regimes. Though it touches on material already explored in recent docus like “The Trials of Henry Kissinger” and “Raymundo,” “Condor” nevertheless gets its hooks into an audience, particularly a politically-savvy one, with its intelligent, impassioned approach. Also available in a television-friendly 52-minute version, docu should end up a well-traveled fest and tube item, with an outside shot at theatrical exhibition in major cities.
Pic’s title refers to a top-secret network of South American dictators and skilled commando forces, an operation code-named “Condor” and allegedly supported by Interpol, the CIA and the U.S. State Department throughout the 1970s and ’80s. Condor, the film argues, was formed not only to abet South American regimes in their suppression (i.e., torture and execution) of perceived dissidents, but to bring the regimes together into a grand empire of terror by which to manage all of South America.
The movie is particularly harsh on Kissinger, if not quite as much as the film that bears his name, claiming that he had full knowledge of Condor’s actions and, rather than doing anything to stop them, fully supported them.
But what is most remarkable about “Condor: Axis of Evil” is young Argentinean documentarian Vazquez’s access to a range of interview subjects from all sides of this discussion. Pic features the expected comments from left-wing activists like Martin Almada (a Paraguayan lawyer who was once a prisoner himself) and Juan Arrom (leader of the Chilean “Patria Libre” movement).
But, Vazquez has also filmed interviews with former Pinochet associate Manuel Contreras and former concentration camp interrogator Osvaldo Romo, both of whom do little to deny the existence of Condor and, in fact, speak openly (and with little evident regret) about their past transgressions, right down to the types of torture they inflicted on prisoners. Like many of the Nazi war criminals tracked down after the end of WWII, these men believe they were in the right all along, or that they were “just following orders.”
There is an extraordinary sequence early in the film, in which Almada and two former prisoners with whom he was interned, take the audience on a tour of the building where they were held and tortured. Now a modern-looking office complex, this one-time Hanoi Hilton of Paraguay still bears many traces of its sinister past, right down to small, cupboard-sized rooms, barely large enough to accommodate a grown man squatting on his hind quarters, that would serve as prisoners’ cells.
There are other horrifying stories — of needles inserted under fingernails, of heads held underwater — and the cumulative power of these testimonies is startling, comparable to Dieter Dengler’s retracing of his escape from a Vietnamese POW camp in Werner Herzog’s “Little Dieter Needs to Fly.”
Nothing that follows in “Condor” is quite as emotionally affecting as these scenes, and pic might have seemed even stronger had this sequence been held until later in the film (although that would have disrupted the movie’s otherwise chronological ordering of events).
But Vazquez’s film is anything but boring; briskly edited, it leaps furiously from one subject to the next, densely packing its information into a svelte 90-minute frame. Even when the movie seems to be trafficking in familiar information, it manages to put an interesting spin on it, giving viewers thought-provoking information in potent, well-documented doses and leaving it up to them to form an opinion about what it all means.
Shot on a mixture of film and video formats, but screened in Cannes from a 35mm print, pic’s tech specs are solid by docu standards.