Alongside Patricio Guzman’s “Nostalgia for the Light” and Rene Ballesteros’ “The Burn,” German Berger-Hertz’s “My Life With Carlos” completes a remarkable trifecta of docs exploring Chile’s legacy of the disappeared and the crimes of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. Berger-Hertz’s film, like Ballesteros’, is intensely autobiographical, as he seeks to restore the memory of his father, murdered political prisoner Carlos Berger. Brilliantly constructed and majestically filmed, pic has enjoyed a vigorous, award-festooned fest life that will extend to select theatrical and vid play.
The other figure memorialized here is the late, great Spanish documaker Joaquim Jorda (Berger-Hertz’s mentor at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra school of filmmaking), receiving his final screen credit as co-scripter. The student is fast on his way to becoming a master in his own right, applying many of the Pompeu Fabra’s precepts, including the notion that nonfiction film can be personal, visually rich and poetic.
“My Life With Carlos” has these qualities in spades, structured in the form of a letter the son is writing (and reading on the soundtrack) to his father as if he were alive. Berger-Hertz was a year old when his father — a significant leftist lawyer and communications director in the Salvador Allende government up to the brutal 1973 coup led by Pinochet — was arrested, savagely tortured and executed, his remains buried in an unknown location in the windswept desert of Chile’s north.
The film’s mainspring is Berger-Hertz’s desire to bring his mother, Carmen, and two uncles, Ricardo (a factory owner living in Santiago) and Eduardo (a doctor living in Ottawa), together to discuss Carlos, his life and death. Ever since his demise and the coup, Carlos was never discussed in the various households, even though Carmen led the successful prosecution of the aging Pinochet for an illegal cover-up of systematic killings by his squad of traveling assassins , the so-called “Caravan of Death.”
Eschewing talking heads, the film captures family members in personal conversations lensed in full shots; settings include the Canadian woods with Eduardo (who found life in Chile “unbearable”), the backyard of Ricardo’s home and the streets of Barcelona, where Berger-Hertz studied at the Pompeu Fabra. The viewer is constantly allowed space and time to reflect on the events that forced so many Chileans into exile (even as the families had fled to Chile from anti-Semitic persecution in East Europe and Russia), and the actual meaning of “home.” Part of the irony of Berger-Hertz’s extended family is that Carmen, by far the most politically active of the siblings, stayed in Chile, while others who were fairly apolitical left the country, never to return.
The catharsis the film achieves in its final sequence is profound, capping a fine work that blends the personal and political. Miguel I. Littin’s camerawork ranges impressively from epic exteriors to cozy interiors, contrasting with plentiful archival footage of family movies and early ’70s doc clips. Score by Miranda & Tobar contributes a haunting texture to the family saga.