“Condor” achieves that rarity in reportage: a balanced, scrupulously fair account of the infamous Operation Condor program in Latin America. Rather than taking the usual knee-jerk attitude that the CIA was responsible for the continent’s right-wing coups of the 1970s, this powerful docu offers home-grown reasons for those nightmare years, implicating the U.S. without placing all blame in Washington. Confident in his history, helmer Roberto Mader interviews people from all sides, including junta acolytes and torture victims, for a well-rounded, chilling expose. Fest play (“Condor” was awarded best docu in Rio) is assured, but cable could also come calling.
Operation Condor was created by the military dictatorships in Latin America to facilitate cross-border assassinations and kidnappings. While its architects argued that it was purely an intelligence-gathering outfit, there’s plenty of evidence to prove Condor quickly became a multinational, state-sponsored terror operation.
Mader, a docu producer and director based in the U.K., first traces the history of left-wing causes in South America, expertly shuttling between Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay (though auds unfamiliar with the politics of the region may lose their way at times amid the barrage of information). While Nelson Corgo, president of a nationalist Argentinian group, blames hippies and free love for destabilizing the region, informed pundits like articulate author John Dinges talk of Cold War fears and the U.S.’ willingness to support any measures that would counter perceived communist leanings.
As the different countries gradually succumbed to military dictatorships, leftist refugees fled to whichever nations seemed less dangerous. This is where Operation Condor stepped in: Secret police from one country were not only allowed to operate with impunity in their neighbors’ territory, but were even assisted by their counterparts. Transnational assassinations became commonplace, tacitly condoned by Henry Kissinger’s State Department, provided the murders stayed in Latin America.
Mader’s subjects include people like Lilian Celiberti, whose kidnapping in 1978 by Uruguayan agents working in Brazil exposed Condor’s international workings; also revealed is Condor’s shocking policy of kidnapping the children of suspected agitators. Interviewees such as Augusto Pinochet’s son, Augusto Pinochet Hiriart, and secret police chief Manuel Contreras reject such accusations, but the weight of evidence works against their feeble denials.
Each country had, of course, a slightly different m.o., though each presented its policies of wholesale assassination and torture as the only effective way of countering the overhyped threat from the left. While Argentina and Chile became the most notorious, Dinges mentions a particularly chilling statistic: While in Chile fewer than 20% of detainees were killed, in Argentina the figure was between 50% and 80%.
Mader expertly weaves archival footage (images from the Sept. 11, 1973, coup in Chile are especially disturbing) in with his talking heads, using the full panoply of documentary tools without resorting to false re-creations. Digital works fine on the bigscreen, and Victor Biglione’s music complements the images without attempting to compete with their power.