The Judge and the General

{Originally Published on on August 19th, 2008}

When Augusto Pinochet died on December 10th, 2006, the former military dictator of Chile took along with his last breath any chance of facing true justice. The supremely divisive figure in the history of the world’s longest and thinnest country once again polarized society with his passing. The tears of his blind adorers were juxtaposed with the jubilance of his detractors who took their celebrations to the streets. A slightly more solemn response was had both those who had felt embittered by the fact that Pinochet’s mortality was his final escape from prosecution for crimes committed under his regime’s cruel seventeen year rule. For them, it was as if father time had been the dictator’s last accomplice whereas their disappeared loved ones remained frozen in black and white photographic memories. It is this dramatic moment that sets the stage for the beginning of the new documentary The Judge and the General.

Premiering as part of the award winning P.O.V. documentary series on PBS, The Judge and the General by Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco examines the investigation into the crimes of General Augusto Pinochet committed in the aftermath of the U.S. backed military coup against the democratically elected President of Chile Salvador Allende in 1973. Juan Guzman, the judge assigned by lottery in 1998 to investigate the grave misdeeds of Pinochet’s reign, becomes the personal navigator through which a narrative pensively unfolds revealing the lies and crimes of one of the most repressive dictatorships to grip a nation in the late 20th century. As the film notes, Guzman came from a conservative background, supported the coup when it occurred, and dismissed reports of tortures and disappearances to be communist propaganda. When assigned the task of compiling evidence and reaching conclusions in human rights cases against Pinochet, Guzman becomes viscerally transformed. He is made to even confront his own role as investigations on ignored writs of habeas corpus bring him face to face with his own judicial hand writing. It is through this seemingly unlikely protagonist of history that light is shone upon the path towards truth and reconciliation in a country bearing the wounds of a violent history.

For Guzman, such a journey is faced with harsh truths once disappeared and buried in the sands, seas, and abandoned mines of Chile. The cases that are intimately highlighted in the documentary are all too familiar. Young people profiled in Guzman’s investigation, like Manuel Donoso and Cecilia Castro, are idealistic Chileans just starting their lives out enamored by the politically utopian possibilities of their time. When the belligerent coup came, so to, literally, did death come knocking on their doors. Both were murdered, alongside thousands others, not for being terrorists, which they obviously weren’t, but for merely participating in the historical fulfillment of their political visions. Through excavations and investigations, Guzman slowly begins to learn the undeniable truth of the darkness of the dictatorships crimes. Testimonies by the families of Donoso and Castro provide poignant insight into the emotional intensity of the fight for justice against Pinochet explored in The Judge and the General.

The filmmakers do excellent work in tracing a complex, and at times volatile history in their documentary. Interesting archival footage provides the historical foundation for the coup while the film’s tracing of the human rights movement in the courts against Pinochet brings the story up to date. All the relevant episodes ranging from the arrest of the General in London for extradition to Spain, to the claims of senility by the human rights abuser, to his unfortunate death before Guzman’s indictments could deliver final justice are all treated comprehensively yet cogently. And while many interpret the current president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, as a metaphor for the new, restored Chile as she had been imprisoned and tortured by Pinochet’s forces, the epilogue of the film reveals one final harsh truth.

As the 35th anniversary of the September 11th coup of Chile approaches this year, only 30 members of Pinochet’s forces have been convicted and imprisoned for crimes committed during the dictatorship according to the film’s conclusion. In the nearly two years since the passing of the architect of the regime of death and torture, the most symbolic murder case from the coup, that of the famous folk singer Victor Jara, was declared closed with only one colonel held responsible for the crime earlier this year. Jara’s family and supporters protested to demand that the case be re-opened so that all responsible parties be brought to justice. As their fight continues for human rights, so to does the fight for all of Chile. And as the film notes, the Judge that tried, ultimately in vain, to bring the General to justice, has since retired from practice. Pinochet, on the other hand, escaped with his ashes, now only consigned to the final judgment of history – a conclusion made more sound by Guzman’s personal transformation through his judicial human rights work.

“The Judge and the General” will be airing on KCET on  August 21st at 9:00 p.m. Check for all scheduled viewings.


One response to “The Judge and the General

  1. Thanks for writing this.

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