On Lincoln Center's Latinbeat: The Death of Pinochet

Last night, The Film Society of Lincoln Center kicked off the 12th annual Latinbeat series, which, in addition to their many year-round international screenings serves as a kind of global inventory-taking, and belies the misperception that FSLC is an elitist entity. Herewith, my notes on The Death of Pinochet, which emerged as one of my favorite films from the fortnight-long series.

The Death of Pinochet -- or, Night of The General

For most Americans, it may be hard to believe there is another nation on Earth for whom 9/11 is a defining day -- but to Chileans, it is, and was so, long before ours. In fact, Chile's 9/11 occurred with the aid of unseen US influence facilitating the bloody military coup d'etat of September 11th 1973, which tore the societal compact and the presumed loyal opposition to an electoral mandate, imposing a military dictatorship of patronage and terror that followed a mass-execution.

The body of democratically-elected Chilean president Allende has been exhumed and ruled a suicide, though whether he died by his own hand or the military's is largely irrelevant, as the coup would have been a bloodletting irrespective of how the man died. The decades-long heroic efforts of filmmaker Patricio Guzmán are to be held up and admired - and kudos to BAM for their recent Guzman retrospective, as well as NYC film stalwarts Anthology Film Archives, who've consistently given Guzmán a New York screen over the years.

Presently the US is certainly dealing Chile its share of soft diplomacy -- from beach-heading the Lollapalooza music festival produced by corporate festival promoters C3, who were recently investigated for monopolistic practices, specifically radius clauses, to the importing of a lot more Chilean products turning water under the bridge into Chilean wine sales (at several recent product expos I've attended recently, I have found Chile there with a booth).

During the recent Chilean mine collapse media event, I recall a British microphone holder (it read BBC) saying "There at the bottom of that mine, the ghost of Pinochet is finally put to rest", and it emerged to my mind that -- free speech notwithstanding, naturally -- perhaps it was not for a British person to make such a proclamation.

Such proclamations about post- -- and pre-Pinochet Chile are made loudly and boldly however, (albeit yielding perhaps no more clarity then the Brit's) in The Death of Pinochet, a film for which the logline could well be the response given me by the very capable director Pablo Larrain at last year's NYFF (to read my write-up, including a transcript of a Nixon/Kissinger conversation about plausible deniability in Chile, click HERE) when I asked, after screening his devastating film Post-Mortem, what life was like in Chile, circa now:

"You know when you talk to people who were in those days you get so many different opinions, you know? And it's always something so strange to try and build one whole idea of what happened; it's not possible to design something objective. This is not a documentary or something like that -- and when you get to talk to people, everything is so different; you really question yourself if people were in the same country." (Emphasis added)

Set during the period determined by its title and utilizing close-ups of human mouths, the directors make visually literalist the notion of vox pops, creating a simple, blunt poetry of revelatory visual details: talk of constitutional rights is delivered by a mouth missing the majority of its teeth, virtually toothless, housing only a few terminally rotten stumps; a frothing mouth of a Pinochet supporter taking to the street in a counter-demonstration; the overlooked garish red traces of lipstick on the teeth of a Pinochet Petit-bourgeois loyalist (oblivious to the red smear) whose patronage-granted small business permit is expiring and has been denied a renewal permit, reminding me in her declarations of fealty to Pinochet and her supplications to Christ, of how patriotism and prayer are the last refuge of scoundrels; the bearded mouth of a frustrated old leftist soldier who'd made a fateful decision during a crucial moment in his past as a soldier when he faced the opportunity to intervene and/or die for his principles.

Interspersed with the footage of crowds haranguing, taunting each other from both sides of the street, we learn the back stories and the where-were-you-when-you-heard-the-news anecdotes of a cabbie; a codger who called Pinochet "Mi General", the aforementioned paper-flower peddler and former solder.

Just before the talking heads reach redux, the film takes a sharp left turn, so to speak, and offers up a perfect three-minute, arty short, the likes of which might be screened at some Chilean film group's monthly screening (theme his month: "Abstract Images, National Reconciliation?") and by this I mean it's a very good thing: a short elegant montage of a pair of eyes in close-up, through an enveloping darkness, smoke and dust pirouetting in slo-mo, rising like a prayer or a soon to be lost memory or an unclenched fist, over the words:

"If only you could feel my pain and I yours, that would be so beautiful"

Opting to ground this transcendentally human-scale visual prayer for empathy with the vigilance it merits, The Death of Pinochet ends not with a simple wish for empathy; it ends, quite pointedly, with the camera panning from the funeral procession heading towards final internment, then to a flag at half-mast (emerging like a balance of power-o-meter), then pulling back, revealing a window in a building nearby, out of which peer several uniformed military men, officers, one of whom, in the center is clearly their leader; what shadow a newly raised flag will cast over Chile remains TBD.

By way of an important note on translation, the English subtitles to the screener I was given read "One of Chile's most notorious citizens", during a eulogy of Pinochet, though, as best as I could hear in headphones after countess replays, the eulogist seems to actually say, as would obviously be native to the context, that Pinochet was "One of Chile's most notable citizens", making for a rare instance when the English language version of events events transpiring in South America actually tells the truth.

NOTE:I am presently in Montauk, where the cancellation of two music festivals (but not my motel reservation) has made for an unexpected (and unpaid, now costly) vacation. Next week I will be posting more notes on LatinBeat's selections, as well as my on-camera interview with festival curator, Marcela Goglio.

The 12th Annual Latin Beat Film Festival will be taking place at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theatre August 10th through the 24th. The Death of Pinochet will have two screenings: Sunday August 14th at 3 PM and Wednesday August 17th, at 7 PM.

Screening Schedules, ticket and film information are at Filmlinc.com