Rene Ballesteros’ “The Burn” joins Albertina Carris’ “The Blondes” and Carmen Castillos’ “Calle Santa Fe” among the growing library of personal, emotional nonfiction films on the impact of the disappeared during the Chilean and Argentine military juntas of the 1970s and ’80s. Though viewers not acquainted with Chile’s tragic history of oppression and censorship may struggle through early sections, the film’s fresh angles astonish, and more than justify its impressive streak of festival awards.
From the start, Ballesteros (who, besides directing and scripting, also co-edits and handles music and sound, as well as putting himself in front of the camera) conveys a sense of what it’s like to wade through a hazy record of documentation to track down his long-absent mother, Margarita. Compounding the frustrations are his older relatives, who treat Margarita like the family’s black sheep, including his senile grandmother, whose collapsing memory personifies a nation that has nearly eradicated a crucial part of its history.
Only Ballesteros’ librarian sister, Karin, joins him in his efforts to reconstruct what exactly happened to Margarita. Not only do Karin’s research skills come in handy, but her involvement with left-wing publishing house Quimantu is the linchpin in unlocking the mystery.
As the siblings learn, Quimantu printed hundreds of paperback titles at a price affordable to the masses (in Chile, books are typically outlandishly expensive), and its impact was such that the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet eradicated the operation. The publishing house’s stock was burned in a massive conflagration, recalling Nazi book-burnings, soon after the junta secured control of the nation.
As Ballesteros’ camera gazes on the ruins of Quimantu’s former headquarters, it provides a shocking image of totalitarian wrath and evil. A single sound clip toward the end of the film proves equally as emotional.
Personal documaking seldom matches the level of artfulness and craftsmanship on display here, from a complex editing scheme to a lovely matching of sound and image, such as when the siblings pore over photos of themselves as children.