A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman
This is an exploration of exile, memory, longing and democracy through the words and memories of playwright/author/activist, Ariel Dorfman (Death and the Maiden, How to Read Donald Duck, Other Septembers). The documentary was filmed in the USA, Argentina and Chile in late 2006 coinciding with the death of former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet.
It took a few days to process this film, directed by Peter Raymont. Given the nature of the material, there’s lots to think about, to try to be objective. I have read another review, and that reviewer felt the film failed in “giving us a deeper understanding of the trauma of exile”. He also calls the film biographical. It’s not. Not by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a historical autobiography on film. (It always amazes me how reviewers will review for the work they wanted to see, and not the work as presented by the creators). I submit it does’nt take much to intuit the trauma of exile, and I did not feel it failed on this question, but I do agree the impact of exile was secondary, (by necessity), to the story of the tyrannical terrorism which caused the exiles and the comparison of the two 9/11’s. He also says the film won’t achiever much box office success. Do documentaries achieve box office success??? Unless you’re Al Gore or Leonard???
Ariel Dorfman is very easy to watch and listen to. A very personable professor! We see his strengths, but he is not keeping his weaker moments from us. His doubts about why he did’nt die that day, (unknown to him at the time his name was crossed off the list of those cabinet members to be called because “someone had to live to tell the story”), the pain of finding his grandmother’s resting place (he had put it off because it was so painful, and then could’nt find it). The meetings and interviews with his old compadres, never having lost the effect of the terror, 34 years later. The editing is the best part of the film. I never got lost or confused, though the film jumps from country to country, from decade to decade, and involves several different major historical events of the 20th century as they affected his family, as well as interlacing archived film/news footage.
The most moving portions was the coverage on the Desaparecidos (the Disappeared) and the scene where Dorfman meets with the women of the Desaparecidos and tells them they are what made him. They are exiled as well, though living in their own country still, they have no resolution.
But the parallels between Chile’s 9/11 and the 9/11 of the US are what the film is about, for me. When it happened in Chile, Dorfman and his friends said “but it could’nt happen here.” Which is what so many of us in the US have been saying since 2000. The lesson of the ease of forming a dictatorial style police state and the resulting threat to a democracy in response to a crisis. As he says, as the United States, so goes the world. Looking ahead to 2008, it’s a warning.
Politics are very personal. And that time in Chile was very complicated, lots of factions. Salvador Allende was a father figure to many of his followers who at that time saw Socialism as an answer. The accepted account now is that Allende committed suicide on 9/11, 1973. But that’s another story.
Ariel Dorfman made a promise as he was escaping Chile, running for his life into exile. He promised his dead they would be remembered. And now thru their memory they are speaking to us, giving their warning. America, take care.
He kept his promise.