Review: A Promise to the Dead
Torture, “disappearances,” exile, and the brutal impact of war on women and families are big themes of this year’s Human Rights Watch showcase of 32 films (mostly documentaries) from 20 countries, co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Now in its 19th edition, with concurrent programs in New York and London, this indispensable series focuses on eye-opening personal stories of human struggle that involve the quest for social justice amid political upheaval.
In the opening-night selection, A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman, director Peter Raymont trails the celebrated Chilean author and playwright (Death and the Maiden, How to Read Donald Duck) on a very personal odyssey back to his roots as a young activist in Santiago. Through his recollections, we revisit the heady days of Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist leader who Dorfman was cultural advisor to, and the tumult that followed his 1973 assassination, when a CIA-funded coup brought military dictator Augusto Pinochet to power.
Dorfman is an eloquent chronicler and eyewitness to the revolutionary tenor of the time, and his walking tours with old comrades of the plazas and thoroughfares where they staged pro-Allende rallies are wed to electrifying archival footage of the same events, often at the exact moments he’s describing. He relates his narrow escape from Pinochet’s security forces, who hunted and killed many of his friends, visits the Argentine embassy where he sought refuge, and puzzles over latter-day Chileans’ embrace of a man known to have tortured and executed thousands of suspected agitators.
More poignant, though, are Dorfman’s meditations on the psychically fracturing experience of exile. His beloved Russian Jewish grandmother, who was Trotsky’s interpreter, fled the Bolshevik aftermath and settled in Argentina, where she became the first translator of Anna Karenina into Spanish. Years later, his own father was forced to flee a military junta in Buenos Aires and resettled the family under U.N. auspices in New York City, where Dorfman spent part of his youth. Then, during the anti-Communist purges of the 1950s, the family was again displaced, and Chile became Ariel’s adopted home. “Exile took away all my shelters,” he remarks at one point. “It tore me open.”
Unfortunately, Raymont’s doc is short-sighted as a historic primer, uncritically enshrining the Allende legacy without contextualize his social-democratic campaign within Chile’s modern history or the upheavals happening all over Latin America. Dead leaves much to be desired as a first-person testimonial, too, since Raymont too often allows his voluble subject to lapse into self-hagiography. (Dorfman’s son, who appears in the film and is one of the only other voices we hear, merely adds a doubling effect.) The portrait of Dorfman that emerges is shallow and one-dimensional as a result, since his version of events is never contested, and nothing but full-throated expressions of support come from his choir of friends, who are grudgingly edited into his autobiographical monologue.
Still, Dorfman’s commitment to honoring the memory of Chile’s disappeared is genuine, and his self-regard is at least partly justified. Few have been able to, as he puts it, “bridge” the history of the Americas quite as effectively, both in writing and activism. The fact that the date of Chile’s most violent modern catharsis, September 11, 1973, coincides with America’s own epoch-making tragedy on September 11, 2001, enables him to posit some striking parallels between North and South. And it brings A Promise to the Dead a little closer to home.