Court trial doc is impeccably constructed

The Judge and the General

on August 14, 2008 by Sara Schieron
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The Judge and the General is a strongly ethical, traditionally executed and soundly organized documentary about Judge Juan Guzmán and his decade-long court trial to prove that General Augusto Pinochet was responsible for the death, torture and disappearance of thousands of Chileans. Doc anticipates an eventual home on PBS as part of their POV series, where it will likely enjoy a good deal of repeat broadcasting. Box office prospects are narrow theatrically, but a greater home awaits and educational channels are infinite for this film with its impeccable construction and thorough coverage of the trial.

Directors Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco followed the judge around for 10 years and managed to effectively compress this decade of footage into a swiftly edited 84 minutes. This conservative, basically pro-Pinochet judge was selected by lottery to take the case launched against the general and initially approached the trial with the flip malaise of a bored bureaucrat. It was only after seeing extensive evidence of the grievous crimes committed by the Pinochet government that it occurred to Guzmán that this trial was a cross meant for him to bear. In this circumstance, Guzmán comes off as initially unlikable: the sort you can’t trust with such a weighty obligation. But in time it’s precisely his initial disinterest that makes his conversion to a crusader so viable, and so ultimately moving.

Though there are many thousands of grievances and missing-persons records filed in the Chilean courts, only two were sent to investigation as part of Guzmán’s caseload for the trial against Pinochet. Rabid supporters of the general still speak on his behalf in the streets, shouting against the indictments of his crimes (evidence be damned). The vitriol that still circulates for and against this now-deceased leader is shocking to say the least. The first trial explored is for the torture and death of Manuel Donoso, a young sociology professor killed shortly after the bloody Pinochet-led coup that deposed Salvador Allende and placed Pinochet in power. His widow and son follow investigators as they uncover evidence (as well as unearth his remains) to prove he was tortured prior to his death. The widow knew when she identified the body he’d been tortured, but her complaints at the time fell on deaf ears. The saga of Cecilia Castro and her mother Edita is similarly harrowing. Edita was approached by Pinochet’s secret police and questioned about the whereabouts of her daughter and son-in-law. She knew that if she didn’t tell them of her daughter’s hiding place, they’d find her daughter with her granddaughter, which would lead to death for them both. Knowing Cecilia would never forgive her for the loss of her little girl, Edita gave up her daughter to spare her granddaughter.

The stories are purely horrible, but beneath the tragedies there does seem to reside a basic sense of serenity; as if these people have already seen the worst they could ever see and now somehow rest quietly on the strengths they built through their losses. It’s horrible, but it’s somehow comforting. The passage of time has also left a patina of calm on them. (It’s been decades since some of them suffered their initial losses.) With Guzmán on their side, struggling with the stabs of guilt he bears for living in ignorance of the injustice for so long, the victims are empowered to reach towards justice: which Guzmán, quite tirelessly, helps procure.

Distributor: ITVS
Cast: Juan Guzmán,
Directors: Patricio Lanfranco and Elizabeth Farnsworth
Producer: Patricio Lanfranco
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 84min
Release date: August 14 SF

Tags: documentary, courtroom drama, Judge Juan Guzman, General Augusto Pinochet, Chile, Patricio Lanfranco, Elizabeth Farnsworth
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