Film note: “The Judge and the General,” a mass-murder mystery

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In 1973, a military coup overthrew and murdered the democratically-elected president of Chile, socialist Salvador Allende, replacing him with General Augusto Pinochet, whose regime perpetrated torture, murder and “disappearances” until 1990.

The Judge and the General, screening on 7:30 p.m. on July 24 as part of the Cinema of Urgency series at the Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis. Admission free. For more information, see walkerart.org.


The makers of The Judge and the General, PBS News Hour correspondent Elizabeth Farnsworth and Chilean journalist Patricio Lanfranco, tell the story of the investigation by Chilean Judge Juan Guzman—which unfolds with the suspense of a CSI episode. Guzman discovered systematic abuses under the guise of Cold War anti-communism and anti-terrorism. His search for truth and accountability stands as an example of a country trying to come to terms with horrors of its own history.

We hear the voices of families of the “disappeared” (those who were arrested and never heard from again), torture survivors, investigative journalists, human rights activists, and lawyers. Context for their gut-wrenching reports comes from archival film and photos of the coup and subsequent crime scenes: graves exhumed, sites of massacres, and a secret prison where torture was perpetuated. Tension climbs as evidence mounts that the assassinations and abuses were not the “excesses of a few”—as Pinochet claimed—but the work of his intelligence service DINA, trained by the CIA and the infamous U.S. Army School of the Americas, which taught Latin American officers torture techniques like waterboarding and the use of electrical shock. The crime story extends to the infamous car-bombing a of Chilean human rights activist living in Washington, D.C.

What is perhaps most affecting about The Judge and the General is the character study at the heart of the film. Once a Pinochet supporter, Judge Juan Guzman describes himself as having formerly lived “in a golden bucket.” As a so-called “good German,” he thought that stories of atrocities were “communist propaganda.” Through his investigation (which results in death threats, requiring him to wear a bullet-proof vest and have body guards), Guzman faces his own passive complicity with these crimes and is transformed into a true citizen of conscience. As we Americans learn more about our own government’s use of illegal wiretaps, torture, rendition, secret prisons, and show trials in the “war on terrorism,” this film is a moving challenge to citizens’ responsibility in what governments do under the guise of protecting our national security.

Two statements from the film continue to echo after the credits roll. Judge Juan Guzman says, with evocative simplicity, “A wounded country needs to know the truth.” As his regime was “disappearing,” torturing, assassinating, and committing massacres, General Augusto Pinochet himself declared that “He who has done nothing has nothing to fear.”

Lydia Howell, a winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism, is a Minneapolis independent journalist writing for various newspapers and online journals. She produces and hosts Catalyst: politics & culture on KFAI Radio.

Cinema of Urgency in the Daily Planet:
Cyn Collins on Flow: For Love of Water (August 1-3)
Cyn Collins on Secrecy (August 15-17)
Lydia Howell on The Listening Project (August 28)