Judgment day: Juan Guzm‡n takes questions from reporters in his investigations of General Pinochet's crimes. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

Exhuming History with "The Judge and the General"

Susan Gerhard August 11, 2008

Character development is essential to any film, but in documentary, it’s particularly challenging to depict. With The Judge and the General, Bay Area filmmaker Elizabeth Farnsworth and co-director Patricio Lanfranco vividly portray the kind of character transformation that alters not just an individual’s life, but the course of history. Judge Juan Guzmán, whose family supported Pinochet, is given the job of investigating the General’s crimes— which he does, surprisingly, with vigor. The film watches him dig up the most gruesome of histories, touch decaying bones, and find out a truth he was skeptical existed in a powerful documentary about Chile’s past and present. As part of our Bay Area filmmakers’ series as the San Francisco International Film Festival gets underway, SF360.org asked Farnsworth some introductory questions over email last week.

SF360.org: Where did your filmmaking career begin?

Elizabeth Farnsworth: My filmmaking career began in Santiago, Chile, in 1970, during the last months of Salvador Allende’s campaign for president, when I was assistant producer of Que Hacer, a documentary that tried to combine the best of both feature and documentary films. (It was heavily influenced by Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool.) Que Hacer was produced by Jim Becket and directed by Saul Landau, Nina Serrano, and Raúl Ruíz. After that I worked mostly as a journalist—in print and television—and eventually became a foreign correspondent and then chief correspondent for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." In 1983, Steve Talbot and I produced and directed "The Gospel and Guatemala," which won a San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate award, and in 1990 John Knoop and I directed Thanh’s War. Both films aired first on KQED and then on PBS.

[Farnsworth writes: Please note that the SF Film Festival program was mistaken in saying "Thanh’s War" won a Golden Gate Award. It was "The Gospel and Guatemala," and if I remember correctly, it was for best TV documentary.]

SF360.org: What led you to begin researching this story?

Farnsworth: I had covered events in Chile closely since 1970 and especially after people I had known in Chile died or disappeared into Pinochet’s prisons after his 1973 coup against the democratically elected Socialist president Salvador Allende.
When I covered the election of Ricardo Lagos as president in Chile in 2000 for "The NewsHour," I also reported on human rights investigations into the crimes of security forces during the Pinochet era. Later, I met Judge Juan Guzmán in San Francisco when he was here to speak at UC Berkeley and realized almost immediately that he would be a good subject for a film.

Patricio Lanfranco and I had worked together on "NewsHour" stories, and he also wanted to make a film about the human rights investigations. We decided to work together.

SF360.org: What was the most surprising moment in the process?

Farnsworth: I was surprised to learn in an interview that Juan Guzmán had penned some of the 10,000 denials of habeas corpus petitions during the height of the repression of the Pinochet years. He was a young judge and was called to be a "rapporteur" in the Court of Appeals, someone who reads and summarizes files for higher judges. In this capacity, he had no authority to rule on a petition, but he wrote the denials under order from the higher judges. His thoughts about became important in the film.

SF360.org: What was the most difficult part in getting it made?

Farnsworth: Patricio and I found it especially difficult to raise money and also to figure out how to tell a complex story set mainly in the present but including a lot of information about the past.

We got early funding from Stephen Silberstein and Barbro and Barney Osher, and I’m forever grateful to them for getting us off the ground. It took many more months before the MacArthur Foundation came in, followed by the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB). Without ITVS and LPB, this film might never have been made.

The documentary tells the story of Guzmán’s investigations, which take place in the present, but he’s investigating crimes that took place more than 30 years ago. We interweave his investigations with flashbacks to the crimes (as told by those who witnessed what happened). Our characters—including those witnesses—tell the story, There is no journalistic voice-over narration—and this meant the editing was extremely complex and time-consuming. Blair Gershkow, a gifted editor, made it work.

SF360.org: This is a World Premiere of your film. Where do you hope it goes next?

Farnsworth: We’ll apply to other film festivals, and the documentary airs on P.O.V., a PBS documentary series, August 19.

SF360.org: Do you have any key advice for novice filmmakers?

Farnsworth: Making a film demands a core group of dedicated, talented people, so gather good people together early for your project.

Patricio and I were lucky to work with Blair Gershkow, executive producer Dick Pearce, co-producer Andrés Cediel, and managing producer Rob Weiss and with talented cameramen like Vicente Franco and Michael Anderson. They and others who joined us are responsible for much that is good about the documentary.

[SF360.org editor’s note: The Judge the the General opens in Bay Area theaters this week—the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley (Aug. 12), the Roxie (Aug. 14) and the Smith Rafael (Aug. 17). It airs Aug. 19 on P.B.S.‘s P.O.V. series. This interview originally ran when the film played the SF International Film Festival this past spring.]

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