TOPICS > Politics

Chilean History Examined in ‘The Judge and the General’

August 19, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Decades after Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship claimed the lives of thousands of Chileans, a new documentary by Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco sheds light on Chile's troubled past. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Farnsworth, a former NewsHour correspondent, about the film.

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a new documentary on Chile, and to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: On Sept. 11, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet led a coup against Chile’s democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. Allende died that day, and thousands of Chileans were killed, tortured, exiled, and disappeared in the aftermath.

GEN. AUGUSTO PINOCHET, Former Leader of Chile (through translator): Congress will remain in recess until otherwise ordered. That is all.

JUAN GUZMAN, Chilean Judge (through translator): I myself believe that, if I would have been a young lieutenant or young captain and I was ordered to shoot one or more people, I would have shot.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those last words were spoken by Juan Guzman, the judge appointed in 1998 to investigate the crimes of the Pinochet regime. His quest is the subject of the film “The Judge and the General.”

One of its co-producers is someone well-known to the NewsHour audience, our long-time correspondent and colleague — and I should say friend — Elizabeth Farnsworth.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH, Former NewsHour Correspondent: Good to see you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nice to have you here. What drew you to the story of Juan Guzman?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I worked on a film in Chile in 1970. I was an assistant producer on a feature film that had documentary footage in it, too. And I was there for four months when Allende was elected, the democratically elected socialist that worried President Nixon and Henry Kissinger and also the conservative people who didn’t support socialism in Chile.

And I got know a lot of people on both sides of the political divide when I did that. One of our cameramen was killed when the crew came. He had been very pro-Allende. I knew people who died. I knew people who supported Pinochet.

And you might say I became obsessed with this, because I wanted to know, why did so many Chileans support a military coup, which included quite a lot of violence, torture, secret prisons? And why, on the other side, did people dare and how did they dare resist that coup?

A film on personal transformation

JEFFREY BROWN: And this judge became a way into the story, clearly.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I met the judge by chance.

JEFFREY BROWN: He's a very unlikely character, isn't he, for a crusader?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes, he's a judge. Judges are circumspect. They're careful. I met him by chance in San Francisco when he was speaking at the Center for Human Rights at the University of California.

And he was very pro-Pinochet. You saw him say that, "I would have -- if I'd been ordered to shoot somebody, I would have." He opposed Allende...

JEFFREY BROWN: At the time.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: ... at the time. He supported the coup. In the film, he said that they drank with champagne. And I thought that he was the perfect person to tell the story, because, after he was appointed, pretty much by judicial lottery to judge to investigate the crimes...

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, we should say judges in the Chilean system investigate and prosecute.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes, they do both. And after he was appointed, he changes completely. The film is about a personal transformation. And I won't tell anybody what happens in the end, but human rights lawyers thought he would do nothing. So the film is about what he did.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you follow as he methodically talks to victims' families. He goes back and look for details, witnesses.

I want to show a clip that's about one of the victims. And it's Donoso, is his name.

Looking into Manuel Donoso's death

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes, Manuel Donoso was his name.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little bit about -- set this up for us.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, we had to follow what he was doing. And this was one of the cases that he was investigating during the time we were filming that we could be present for. All of this was embargoed, by the way, until the investigations were finished.

And Manuel Donoso was just a member of one of the parties that was part of the Allende coalition, a member of the Socialist Party of Chile. The current president of Chile is a Socialist, by the way, a long tradition of democratic traditions. And he was -- as you'll see, he was picked up after the coup. Nobody really knows why. And you'll hear a little bit about what happened to him.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let's look at that short clip, but I just want to warn our audience that there are some images of human remains in this clip. Let's look at that.

JUAN GUZMAN, Chilean Judge (through translator): Manuel Donoso was killed right after the coup near Idica in the north of Chile. I had to know whether soldiers killed him or he had died in a car crash, which was the official story.

MONICA MOYA, Widow of Manuel Donoso: One day, I saw this young man come out of an office, and we stared at each other. One month and 29 days later, we got married. It was beautiful and intense, a very short love story.

JUAN GUZMAN (through translator): I ordered Donoso's remains exhumed and gathered experts to determine the cause of death. To touch those bones, it's like working in the most sacred thing a person could leave in this Earth after departing.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, there are many other remarkable scenes in this, too, some underwater investigation of where people were dumped into the water. But at the same time, you were also interested in average people, how they responded or didn't respond. I've seen you refer to this as what's called the good German question, referring back to the Nazi era.

Ongoing investigations in Chile

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I don't know why I'm obsessed with this. I have been since I can remember. When do people oppose oppression? And when do people look the other way?

And the story of Judge Guzman is so interesting to me because he looked the other way. He wanted to believe, as many people did -- many people were unhappy with Allende. There were reasons why people supported Pinochet. Then he did some things that people really liked.

But Judge Guzman finds out little by little that people are being tortured terribly. I mean, there are some scenes and discussions in here that are very difficult.

And he says at one point that the investigation opened the eyes of his soul and made him realize how blind he had been. And I'm interested in that blindness. Why are some people blind?

JEFFREY BROWN: And these things, I mean, as you said, people can see the film and see how all of this develops, but these issues, this story, those events of that time are still very much with us and the people of Chile today.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes, they are. The investigations are continuing. There are hundreds of members of Pinochet's security forces who are currently in some phase of either being on trial or under investigation.

The head of secret police is in prison on two or three life sentences. It's just all going on there. It's an amazing process in Chile of holding people accountable for what happened after the coup.

Getting viewers to reflect

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, I want to ask you about something you and I have talked about over many years, because I know -- and I know it interests you. It's the art of storytelling, how you tell it on television and in a film like this. You and your colleagues chose to let the characters tell the story. There is no narrator. Why?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: No narrator. It's a good question, because naturally, as a NewsHour correspondent, I was used to telling the story in my own voice and then interviewing people who also helped tell the story.

But I thought that if I narrated or, better, if we got a famous movie star to narrate it, it would separate people from the story. Judge Guzman basically tells this story. And then the various human rights lawyers and journalists and all these people that worked on it also tell the story.

And I think it brings people in. Even though there are subtitles, I think that it brings people into the story better. And they don't stay as separate from it. I hope so. I hope it feels a little more like a feature film than a documentary.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you want people to take away from it?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I hope people ask the same questions that I ask. When should we stand up and say no? When she we go along? When should we make sure that we're not looking the other way when something is damaging our democracy? I hope that they'll ask those same questions. I mean, Chileans have done an incredible job bringing people to justice for this.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the film is "The Judge and the General." Elizabeth Farnsworth, it's very nice to talk to you.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Great to see you, thanks.

JIM LEHRER: "The Judge and the General" airs tonight on "POV," "Point of View," on many PBS stations. Check your local listings for the time.

And the conversation about Pinochet continues on our Web site. Elizabeth Farnsworth and her co-producer are taking your questions in an Insider Forum. Visit us at, and then scroll down to NewsHour Reports.