Review: ‘The Siege’

With eye-popping archival footage and access to key players including former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, "The Siege" is a riveting dissection of the December 1996-April 1997 Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Lima.

With eye-popping archival footage and access to key players including former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, “The Siege” is a riveting dissection of the December 1996-April 1997 Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Lima. Expertly assembled by Aussie co-helmers Bentley Dean and Elise West, docu streams equal-time political commentary and human stories into its play-by-play of the government’s lengthy standoff with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). Classy production world preemed at Sydney and looks primed for extended fest engagements and widespread tube biz. Niche action in selected Spanish-language territories is also a possibility.

First startling piece of footage, an indication of the extraordinarily closeup coverage to come, is a homemovie of rebel leader Nestor Cerpa and MRTA members — most of them very young, including a 15-year-old runaway girl — confirming plans to storm the residence of Japanese ambassador Morihisa Aoki. Raid took place on Dec. 17, 1996, during a function to celebrate the birthday of Japanese Emperor Akihito. Demands included the release of MRTA prisoners including Cerpa’s wife, Nancy Gloria Gilvonio.

Using letters written by Cerpa and read out by his son, Nestor Cerpa Jr., docu gets as close as it can to the late leader, whose actions were clearly aimed at focusing attention on the alleged human rights abuses of strongman Fujimori. Then in his seventh year in office — and appearing in the docu while under house arrest in Chile, awaiting extradition to Peru on murder and corruption charges — Fujimori is in full statesman mode here, recalling one of his greatest PR coups like it happened yesterday. Backed up by precise recollections of survivors including embassy staff and high-ranking Peruvian officials, docu gets about as deep into the practical and psychological arenas of siege management as would seem possible.

Selections from the mountain of footage accumulated during the event’s 126 days gives the somewhat eerie impression the whole thing was a “Big Brother”-like TV spectacular. Not a single aspect — from the digging of an escape tunnel under the residence to you-are-there images of hostages dodging gunfire in the climactic raid — is left to the viewer’s imagination.

Dean and West have wisely chosen to ease the high tempo with well-placed anecdotes relating to the side effects of being held hostage. Among these are revelations that Peru’s director of terrorist affairs taught Cerpa to speak French during the crisis, and a judge was heard to be passing sentence in his sleep.

Pristine in all technical departments, docu is well served by Antony Partos’ subtle score and a selection of tracks by Japanese taiko-drum group Ondekoza.

The Siege

Australia

Production

A Film Finance Corp. Australia, SBS Independent, ITVS Intl. presentation of an Olsen Levy production. (International sales: Olsen Levy, Sydney.) Produced by Curtis Levy. Executive producer, Christine Olsen. Directed by Bentley Dean, Elise West.

Crew

Camera (color, videotape-to-HD), Dean, Caroline Leone, Mario Bassino; editor, Stewart Young; music, Antony Partos; sound editor (stereo), David White. Reviewed at Sydney Film Festival, June 20, 2007. Running time: 80 MIN.

With

Alberto Fujimori, Nestor Cerpa Jr, Morihisa Aoki, Vice-Admiral Luis Giampietri, Michel Minnig. (English, Spanish dialogue)
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