La Muerte de Pinochet: Showing Contrasting Reactions to the General’s Death

By - 24 January, 2012

The great split that carves through Chilean society is laid bare and brought to the surface in the documentary La Muerte de Pinochet (The Death of Pinochet), a film that depicts the different reactions to the news of the general’s death at 91 years old on 10th December 2006. From the crowds of pinochetistas who carried out a raucous vigilance outside the hospital where the old man lay dying to the spontaneous carnival that erupted on the Alameda, Santiago’s main thoroughfare, to celebrate the apparent closure of the most traumatic period in Chile’s history, the film portrays the various emotions unleashed at the time and as such serves as a social portrait of the polarising effect that Pinochet continues to have to this day.

To many Pinochet was the brutal dictator who sowed terror and acquiescence throughout the population with repression and brutality, yet there is a sector of the Chilean populace which sees the general in a different light: namely as the leader who saved Chile from Marxism and heralded in an era of growth that today sees Chile as one of Latin America’s strongest economies. It remains a topic of furious contention in Chile, a country where the subject of Pinochet is not taboo as with Franco in Spain. Those who supported the dictatorship and felt the murder and torture of so many thousands of people was a price worth paying for economic development often remain unrepentant in their attitudes.

The fanaticism of the pinochetistas as they pay homage outside the hospital in Santiago where Pinochet takes his last breaths comes as a shock but highlights the quasi-idol status in which many revered him. Screaming declarations of their eternal devotion to the ex-dictator or of their love for Chile (that would be, their perception of the Chile created by Pinochet), there is a relentless zeal to the crowd, which is made up of young and old, and as death becomes inevitable an intense delirium envelops the throng. A middle-aged woman looms over and screams maniacally into the camera of her loyalty to the general. We also see her in calmer surroundings, in her flowery back yard feeding her pets. As one of the featured Chileans in the film, she says she was put out of business, selling flowers in the Plaza de Armas, by the democratic government which closed her down due to her support for the regime. The contradictions in her behaviour, the hysterical reaction outside the hospital compared with the peaceful tranquility of her home, highlights the spell that Pinochet cast over his followers.

But this is a film of contrasts. Another wild reaction to the death is seen on the Alameda as thousands of people take to the streets in a festive atmosphere of celebration. With singing, dancing, and drummers in costume parading through the throng, the party takes on epic proportions with the revellers, as with the pinochetistas, comprised of all ages. These are raucous scenes yet there is a dark edge to the jubilance. As more and more alcohol is consumed the scenes descend into macho posturing, and the presence of the film camera seemingly encourages exceedingly boisterous behaviour. We are unable to gauge the true feeling of the moment and the camera actively becomes an obstacle to its own ambitions. Unable to provide a reliable picture of the occasion, these scenes unfortunately lose their value as a piece of social commentary.

This is a film that, by allowing both sides a roughly equal amount of screen time (in addition to the Santiago street scenes, there are extended interviews with both supporters and victims of the dictatorship), can claim to offer an objective look at this tumultuous day. Yet this is not the case. Why, for example, does the film only focus on these groups? We see the loyal pinochetistas in a state of grief that manifests itself in zealous fanaticism and we see drunken men shoving and bellowing as they party hard. These two opposing groups may make more watchable subjects in a film-making sense but I doubt they are representative of the general population on that day. What about the surely many millions of Chileans who would have gone about things in more refined ways? For example, the pinochetistas who would have mourned their general in private, or those who rather than celebrate chaotically would have felt relief that a dark chapter in Chile’s history was seemingly finally over. These people who undoubtedly existed and who I suspect formed the majority of Chileans are absent from the film, which gives the impression that the country witnessed two very contrasting reactions. It portrays Chilean society in a black and white context, while ignoring the vast grey area in between these two poles.

Finally, the film raises one other interesting question: was the death of Pinochet really something to celebrate even for the victims of torture or the families of the thousands of dead? When he passed away peacefully at an old age, the final opportunity to gain justice for the atrocities of the dictatorship also went to the grave. It ensured that, while there have been numerous convictions over human rights abuses, the tyrant who lorded over the many years of murder and terror never paid for his crimes. The death of Pinochet granted him the freedom, and the mercy, that so many Chileans were denied under military rule. That was and remains a tragedy for all those who were affected by the dictatorship. The day the general died may have been a sad moment for his followers but it was also the end of the hope for justice for those whom he had brutalised and oppressed for so long. In this sense, although one can empathise with the relief and the sense of closure that marked the death of Pinochet, the celebrations were ill-suited to the day.

La Muerte de Pinochet (The Death of Pinochet)
Chile, 2011
Directed by Bettina Perut and Iván Osnovikoff

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