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Exhuming History with 'The Judge and The General'

By Susan Gerhard

Directors Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco

Directors Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco. Credit: Pat Johnson Studios

This interview first appeared in, a publication of the San Francisco Film Society, on April 21, 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, asked Farnsworth some introductory questions.

Where did your filmmaking career begin?

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 Raśl Ru’z. 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.

What led you to begin researching this story?

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 U.C. 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.

Judge Guzman announces his decision, December 2004.

Judge Guzmán announces his decision, December 2004. Credit: Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

What was the most surprising moment in the process?

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.

What was the most difficult part in getting it made?

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.

Do you have any key advice for novice filmmakers?

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.

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