Heading Forward, Looking Back

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“I don’t like frontiers. I don’t like hymns. I don’t like the military. I don’t like parades. I don’t like immigration officers.”

The writer and advocate Ariel Dorfman has earned the right to dislike these things. Too many times in his life these social constructs have proven either the results or the harbingers of oppression and exile. So much so that the facts of his life have already justified these dislikes when he enumerates them most of the way through A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman, the documentary directed by Peter Raymont that headlines this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York.

I’m not sure I’m the right person to review this film. It may be tough to fairly judge a movie when one has to keep pausing it to sob. I’ve been familiar with Dorfman’s work since my high school Spanish teacher snuck around the curriculum and handed me an excerpt from How To Read Donald Duck, the anti-imperialist tract Dorfman published in 1972.

And I’ve always felt some kinship with the man: But for a different choice in some long-dead people’s destination of exile, he could be my father. Descended of Eastern European Jews who fled to Argentina as the 20th century began, Dorfman moved to the USA when he was 2½ with his parents and then moved to Chile at age 12, in 1954, when the Red Scare caused the U.S. government to expel his father from the land of the free and the home of the brave. Dorfman was an active member of the somewhat global movement of change and hope in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a movement that included my own parents (also descended of Eastern European Jews who came west in the early 20th century). My folks even knew Ronni Moffitt, the assistant to Orlando Letelier, Salvador Allende’s foreign minister, who was killed along with him by a car bomb in Washington, D.C., in 1976.

I had always felt that the destruction of the Chilean democracy in 1973 and the subsequent oppression of the country had something deep to do with me – in some way I didn’t understand. When I received Dorfman’s work, the connection fused, and I became a devotee of a writer I’ve learned is often compassionate, wise, deft and powerful.

It’s tough to be earnest in today’s world without drawing – often deservedly – charges of naïveté or artlessness. I concede that Dorfman’s work has moments when even I think it suffers from this. Manifesto for Another World (2004), his play composed of statements from real human rights crusaders from around the world, is one such example. But those are real words. Sometimes, we have to speak clearly and without art. And, sometimes, as in his novel The Nanny and The Iceberg (1999) or his Olivier Award-winning play Death and the Maiden (also a film directed by Roman Polanski), Dorfman more than proves his literary virtuosity; and, his subtlety, humor and seriousness of purpose dazzle and shake the earth.

A Promise to the Dead, directed by Peter Raymont (Shake Hands with the Devil) bases itself in Dorfman’s memoir, Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey (1998), a stirring examination of the writer’s life, which serves really as a conduit for an examination, on a very human level, of exile, dictatorships, oppression, common bravery, multiculturalism and, above all, as the writer says, a declaration of life.

Dorfman’s language doesn’t always translate well to the screen here. It sometimes comes across stilted and straining too much to emphasize the essentials and the seriousness of the topic. And the filmmaking occasionally sinks into some cheap-looking effects, cheesy music and saccharine images – like the ending shot of an embrace at sunset by the sea.

But the film provides not only a terrific insider’s look at the horrors of what happened in Chile, beginning on a September morning in 1973, when a U.S.-backed military coup killed the democratically elected leader of the country. It takes us on a journey of humanity.

The film aligns itself – as several Dorfman works have – with the parallels between two days of tragedy that share the same date, albeit 28 years apart. September 11. When the Chilean air force swept down upon La Moneda (Chile’s White House) and bombed it on that morning on 1973, Dorfman was President Salvador Allende’s Cultural Advisor. He should have received a phone call, summoning him from his bed to an emergency reunion at La Moneda. He didn’t. The people in La Moneda that day, Dorfman’s colleagues, his friends, disappeared at the hands of the military coup. Dorfman went underground, soon snuck into the Argentine embassy (then harboring may would-be refugees), and eventually escaped the country. He then had to flee Argentina. He went to Paris and Holland and the USA (where he settled and now teaches literature and Latin American studies at Duke), campaigning for the lives of his compatriots. Not until Chilean democracy resuscitated 17 years later, in 1990, did Dorfman return and establish his dual residency.

The storm of fear and lust for vengeance that swept the USA after 9/11 really kindled Dorfman’s desire to film his life. He met Raymont at a film festival in 2005, and by the end of 2006 the two men and their film crew arrived in Chile. A Promise to the Dead takes us on that 2006 journey to the only place Dorfman says he ever felt alive – and only for the three years of Allende’s government. Dorfman revisits personal landmarks – such as an intersection between his old home and La Moneda and then the seaside house where he hid after the coup. We meet his old friends, like Queno Ahumada, Susana Wiener and Carlos Varas.

Raymont very effectively uses footage from the past to illuminate the memories Dorfman and his friends share, which seem to align exactly with the reality of the past that we see. And this juxtaposition – the footage of teeming streets of the past demonstrations for Allende with today’s peaceful Santiago, the young optimists with the now-grizzled family men and women proves shocking. These provide the best moments of the film. Not those in which Dorfman paces ponderously and clearly under direction, but those in which he and his friends pass through true moments of reflection and the pain of remembering.

This film also provides us with a particular gem that it owes to coincidence. While the crew and Dorfman visited Chile in December of 2006, General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, the leader of the coup and subsequent dictator of the nation, suffered a heart attack and died in the hospital.

We see Dorfman hearing a radio report that Pinochet – previously detained in Europe but then released, brought up on charges in Chile finally but again released having never stood trial – has entered the hospital. His long-time nemesis is not exultant. He wants to have seen him judged and confronted in court. He wants him and those who still block out the memory of the terror or claim they never knew about it to admit what happened. It is now the only way to un-erase los desaparecidos.

Dorfman goes to the Hospital Militar de Santiago to try to see the dying general. A passing woman calls Dorfman a dirty communist. We watch our guide look on as a group of Pinochet supporters weep and declare the dictator’s greatness outside the hospital. In an astounding moment, Dorfman speaks with one of the people who refer to the murderer of his friends as the father and savior of Chile. And we see Dorfman go into shock when news of Pinochet’s death comes across the airwaves to the TV in his Santiago home. This drama you cannot stage. This is history.

A strong second current in the film is Dorfman’s literary mission, hardly distinguishable from his status as a political figure but to him, it seems, more important. He tells us that, years after the coup, the man responsible for Dorfman’s not receiving a call the morning of the bombing of La Moneda told Dorfman he had crossed his name off so the writer could live to tell the story. Hearing that validated what Dorfman had felt since the coup. Since he stood at a literal crossroads and decided not to rush to La Moneda to die with his friends. Since his flight from Chile. Since 1973. This man has lived with the mandate to talk, to write, to give voice to the voiceless and the dead. He has promised them he would. He has. In doing so, he has also expanded into the world.
I think my sense of connection with Dorfman in one small way validates this espoused purpose: The globalization of the knowledge of suffering. The globalization of humanity and humanness. The globalization of hope in life. It is this last factor that hits me hardest. To the supporters of Salvador Allende, then the only democratically elected socialist leader in the world, the Chilean presidency of 1970 to 1973 was a bloodless revolution. And the dedication, love, faith and courage – shown even, Ariel, in running away from certain death – continue to astound me. They astound me most of all because they underlie that sense of hope and possibility that makes humankind, in our best moments, such a great and glorious species.

A Promise to the Dead is, perhaps surprisingly, not a lamentation. It feels immediate. Does this speak to some sense of today’s world? To the state of this country, victim of a second September 11th? Perhaps. Perhaps the greater lesson from this film – and from Dorfman’s life and work – comes from the sense of purpose in crying out the tales of the oppressed, in remembering the murdered, in un-erasing the disappeared. In holding onto the past while stepping towards the future. Perhaps a promise to the dead can help us achieve the promise of the dead.