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Justice & The Generals
El Salvador
Around the World
About the Film
About The Film -- Meet The Filmmaker
Introduction Broadcast Schedule Credits Meet The Filmmaker Key Issues Viewer's Guide

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JOHNSON: Will you continue with this kind of documentary filmmaking in the future?

PELLETT: I see this documentary as a continuum of some work that I began several years ago when Bill Moyers and I went to South Africa and did a major two-hour documentary about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In doing that documentary, and what opened up, and what the South Africans taught us, in a sense, from this, this huge experiment, unlike any other truth commission that had taken place, was the idea that there may be some other forms of justice than the ones we think about in a courtroom. That when you have situations in a country where there has been an evil past where a lot of human-rights abuses have taken place ... that how does a country, when it's going into a new future, into a -- now with democratic institutions in play -- how do they deal with that past? And one of the ways is through a truth commission. Now, El Salvador had a truth commission also. Very different from the South Africans, and that interested me also in coming to this story. But what we learned from the South African Truth Commission was that there was a notion of what they thought was restorative justice. That if people say in public -- if victims expressed what happened to them in public, even if a perpetrator may not even come forward, but if they can have people listen to them, listen to their experiences, hear what happened to them in a public context that gives weight to this -- that this is the official government listening now to what went on the in the past, that there's some notion of a restorative justice in that process. Now, we can debate whether that's really true or not. But this was something that the South Africans put forward. They also had this notion of restorative justice for the perpetrator to come forward and confess, and explain what they had done, and that there was some justice in that. And they provided amnesty for people who told the truth about their past, in or what they had done as perpetrators. Now, in the El Salvador situation there was a truth commission that was behind closed doors, wasn't public, and wasn't even really supported all that much by people in El Salvador. But, here was a case of a trial taking place -- a trial for human rights crimes committed in El Salvador. So, this was kind of the flip side of having -- of the truth commission dealing with this case, although they did look into the churchwomen's case and came up with -- and reported on it as we referred to in the documentary. But, here [the trials] was the alternative, in a sense, to the truth commission process, by saying we are going to go ahead, and sue for liability, and damages. And so, I was interested in those different forms of justice. One, there was a truth commission process, and the other led to a trial. And the other thing is: Where were going with this? Where did we begin from?

Every documentary I produce -- when I get to the end of it I think, "Never again," because they are very, very hard to produce, this kind of documentary. Now, I think there are other genres of documentary where -- perhaps that don't require so much research, or in which they're more visual, you get access to a particular eccentric group of people, or personality, or it's all about music, or some cultural expression that is, you know, not too challenging to the human intellect -- whatever, I don't know, I mean, there's many forms that I admire. But, I think that the genre of documentary that I do is so difficult, and partly because it's challenging visually, it's challenging in terms of can you get the story right, can you be fair and reasonable to all sides, various truths, or what angle do you come through to shed light on this complex story. And the challenges of them are really so that I -- sometimes, you know, not sometimes, but every time -- the challenges are so that at the end I often I think, "I don't think I can do this again." And then I'm back for more because I'm insatiable, I have an insatiable curiosity about the world, and I'm inspired by the human project in a way that keeps me coming back for more.

JOHNSON: What do you think is at the core of these kinds of atrocities that people commit against each other?

PELLETT: Working on this documentary, like working on the South African Truth Commission documentary that I did several years ago, exposed me to a level of human cruelty that I had never really taken on before. It is extraordinarily painful to do these documentaries because, not only of what happened to the individuals that you meet, and hear from, and who witness, and tell their story of what happened; or we learn about happened to them; or we see images of what happens to people; but that in our heart of hearts I think one of the things that we, or at least I, have felt profoundly, is that it taps into a side of each and every one of us, that we are all capable of that. That these are all human beings, like you, or me. I'm not so sure that the torturer is a different human being. And so, it raises some profoundly troubling questions about human cruelty and how we're going to cope with it, and deal with it. And so, I have looked at ways of -- in both of these documentaries of dealing with accountability -- the moral accountability for crimes [committed] in the process of searching for justice.

JOHNSON: Do you think that people will focus on basic humanitarian issues as a result of watching the program? Or do you hope they will? What it is that you hope people will come away with?

PELLETT: I guess, you know, people like to ask what it is that you hope people will come away with from a documentary that you do, particularly when it's complex, when it's a story that has gone on you know, for twenty years -- what it is that you hope people will come away with? And I think if I look at it, you know I have different kinds of answers to that. One is that how hard it is to pursue justice and accountability for human rights crimes that take place, and the other is that there's not simply a legal story, I guess. And what has always interested me is the junctures between -- sort of spheres of our experience -- between the political, and the moral, and the legal. And I would hope that those questions emerge from this. Obviously there are some core legal questions at its heart that have to do with the intellectual idea about Command Responsibility, and whether superiors should be responsible for the behavior their subordinates, and that's an intellectual doctrine at the core -- the Command Responsibility doctrine. And there are other legal questions that come through in discussion in reference to statues, etcetera, that give people venues for bringing trials like this. And I think the other thing is this: The other thing I would hope people get a little idea of understanding is that there is a difference between a criminal trial and a civil trial. And the criminal trail requires the government to pursue a crime by a prosecutor to take the case to court against defendants. The civil trials, however, like this one of the churchwomen, and the Salvadoran torture survivors, is the people themselves bringing the complaint, searching for damages of some kind. And then there are people who will argue that that's a more democratic form of trials. So there's a multitude of things that I'd sort of hoped people come away with ideas about. But, I think at its heart of hearts it's really how are we going to pursue accountability for the kinds of cruelties and violence that have been committed by people against each other. And when militaries who are supposed to protect civilian society -- what happens when militaries begin to commit violence against their own civilian populations?

JOHNSON: What did this project teach you as a filmmaker?

PELLETT: Every documentary I do has enormous lessons. And I think that perhaps the biggest lesson that I learned from this is how fraught with consequences the use of images of violence are in terms of their impact on people, particularly people who are related to those images. For example, the usage of the moving footage of the churchwomen being disinterred from that crude grave. Those images are the reason that most people who lived through that period of history remember that story ... those images are so potent.

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"I see this documentary as a continuum of some work that I began several years ago when Bill Moyers and I went to South Africa and did a major two-hour documentary about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission."