Sophia A. McClennen
May 17, 2008
Torture, the suspension of democracy and civil rights, illegal surveillance, forced displacement, and a culture of fear led by a despot who gains power through an act of violence committed on September 11. Sound familiar? Canadian director Peter Raymont’s new documentary, A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman, covers familiar ground but in less familiar territory as he intertwines the life of Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman with the history of Chile and with the events of 9/11 in both Chile and the United States. Author of the award-winning play Death and the Maiden, Dorfman is a novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, journalist, and human rights activist. Born in Argentina in 1942, his family was forced to move to the United States in 1945 only to then become the victims of McCarthyism in 1954. They next fled to Chile, where Dorfman eventually gained citizenship. Exiled again from Chile in 1973, Dorfman has lived since the 1980s in Durham, North Carolina where he teaches at Duke University. Tracing the Dorfman family’s multiple displacements, the documentary is an exploration of exile and loss, but it is equally the story of persistent hope, the survival of collective ties, and the triumph of memory.
Dorfman should have died on September 11, 1973 when a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet ousted the democratically-elected Socialist President of Chile, Salvador Allende. Dorfman served at the time as Allende’s cultural advisor and his name was included on a list of government officials that would be called in the event of an attack. But he wasn’t called. Rather than die alongside his friends and comrades, he lived — and lived to tell the story. Or, as he tells readers of his memoir, Heading South, Looking North, which served as the basis for the film, "If it is not true that this was why I was saved, I have tried to make it true. In every story I tell. Haunted by the certainty that I have been keeping a promise to the dead."
The haunting presence of the dead and the even more haunting ways that the living hold radically contradictory memories of the dead form some of the central questions that guide Raymont’s film. What does it mean to keep a promise to the dead? For Dorfman it means first and foremost telling the story of the thousands of Chileans who were tortured, disappeared, and exiled during the Pinochet years. It means using literature and the power of words to rescue stories that history would like us to forget. It also means being a voice for those that survived but suffered the trauma of losing loved ones. In one especially moving scene Dorfman accompanies Aleida, the daughter of Sergio Leiva, to a Chilean courthouse where he signs an affidavit confirming that he saw her father shot by a sniper while he was a refugee in the Argentine embassy. Until Dorfman’s words provided a challenge to official history, she had suffered the trauma of not only losing her father but having his death completely erased from public memory.
Viewed in the current context of extraordinary renditions, secret prisons, and enemy combatants, where bodies disappear and die with no public record, Dorfman’s story is both inspiring and chilling. During exile, Dorfman dedicated himself to advancing the cause of the Chilean resistance. His perfect bilingualism, due to having lived in the United States and in South America as a young man, and his skills as a writer uniquely positioned him to tell the story of the dictatorship. But, even though the exile years were spent tirelessly struggling for the return of democracy, those long years also served to distance him irremediably from Chile. This distance became painfully clear when his play, Death and the Maiden, about a torture survivor who confronts her torturer, opened in Chile to less than enthusiastic reviews. Yet it is arguably the most internationally significant play authored by a Latin American writer and has been staged across the globe — to resounding success. After receiving an Olivier Award for its production in London, it opened on Broadway with Gene Hackman, Glenn Close, and Richard Dreyfus and was later made into a film directed by Roman Polanski and starring Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, and Stuart Wilson. But it has yet to fully reach Dorfman’s intended audience. Dorfman’s most internationally successful work brought the story of Chile closer to the world but left him even farther away. Rather than focus merely on Dorfman’s successes as a writer, the documentary explores this gap when he has dinner with the actor, Paula Sharim, who diplomatically characterizes the play as "putting a finger in a wound."
Another scene in A Promise to the Dead presses the point of his outsider status when Dorfman appears on a television talk show with a Pinochet supporter shortly after the general’s death. The debate is whether Pinochet deserves to have a military burial. Dorfman adamantly opposes the idea, arguing that a man who denies his enemies the ability to bury their dead has violated military codes of conduct. He then directly asks the program’s host when he first knew about the torture conducted under Pinochet. The simple truth of Dorfman’s words shocks the host and the viewer is left savoring one of those few moments when they have seen someone absolutely refuse to self-censor. It’s a moment reminiscent of Stephen Colbert’s speech in front of George W. Bush at the correspondent’s dinner, except in this case Dorfman was dead serious.
The documentary does an excellent job of balancing between Dorfman’s life and the events he has witnessed, but the real success of Raymont’s film lies in the way that it captures essential features of Dorfman’s aesthetic approach to writing his memoir. The memoir moves back and forth through time and across nations as it recalls the events of the coup in chapters that alternate with memories of Dorfman’s life before the coup. Similarly, the film gracefully moves across time and space showing the ways that memory structures not only our sense of the past but also our dreams for the future. Memory is messy, it is flawed, it can confuse us and haunt us. A first-time visit to Dorfman’s grandmother’s grave reveals that she has been moved to a common unmarked burial ground. Dorfman, running from the loss of her death, had refused to remember her.
Yet memory also is what gives him strength, what inspires his writing, and what allows him to relive the extraordinary camaraderie of the Allende years. In a brilliant scene that reveals both the limits and the resilience of memory, Dorfman meets up with old friends and they reenact a pro-Allende victory march. Linked arm and arm the three men in their 60s erupt in song. When it comes time to turn, they move in opposite directions, having forgotten the actual route they used to take. As they break into laughter over the misstep, the message is clear: Some forgetting is inevitable. Some forgetting is willful. And some forgetting is criminal. When a nation has suffered radical trauma its greatest challenge is over which memories will survive, which will be suppressed, which will be fabricated, and which will be punished.
Pinochet’s systematic denial of the dead, the tortured, and the exiled has drastically scarred Chile. It is impossible to watch this film and not feel deep connections between the story of Chile under Pinochet and the post 9/11/2001 world of the war on terror. At one point, Dorfman speaks about all the people who had to have known about the torture — not just the government and the torturers, but also the people who cleaned the rooms, who cooked for the torturers, and who worked in the myriad jobs that were required to sustain them. Dorfman asks viewers to think about all of the people who knew something horrible was happening to their country and said nothing. He also visits Ground Zero in New York where the tragedy of the attacks and of the response to the attacks resonates eerily with his own memories of Chile.
Measured against these bleak experiences Raymont’s film tells another story. It is a story of extraordinary hope. It is the story of the jubilance of the Allende years and the exhilaration of the vote to oust Pinochet. We watch democracy in action: first voting in a Socialist President and then removing a dictator from power. Ballots slip into a box and we think of other elections to come, other opportunities for change, other ways to keep a promise to the dead.
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