Filmmaker Interview

POV: How did you two come to collaborate on The Judge and the General?

Elizabeth Farnsworth: For many years, I have been a journalist for PBS's NewsHour, and Patricio is a news producer based in Chile. We started working together for NewsHour in 2000, when I would go to Chile to work on stories. We're both very interested in human rights cases, and as we were researching human rights violations in Chile in 2002-2003, we decided to make a film together.

POV: When did you meet Judge Guzmán?

Patricio Lanfranco: I first met Judge Guzmán around 2002. He was under a lot of pressure at the time because of the cases he was working on. He and his wife, who is a member of the human rights community, were at a dinner together. No one at the dinner had been expecting him because at the time, he was on the news all the time — he was in the eye of the storm. Judge Guzmán came to our table just to say hello. I was absolutely thrilled because he knew a little something about me. We started to talk, and I was fascinated by him. At that moment I sensed how lonely he was. He was capturing the attention of all of Chile, but he didn't want to talk about the case. He just wanted to talk to somebody, have a good time and share a glass of wine. I was very impressed by how humble he was.

POV: What drew you to the subject of the film?

Farnsworth: I have a master's degree in Latin American history, and I lived in Peru in the 1960s and was in Chile for about four and a half months in 1970. I became really interested in former Chilean president Salvador Allende, and the Allende experiment [which tried to end poverty through socialism]. When the coup happened in 1973, people that I had known were killed. Ever since then, what has been going on in Chile has been a matter of tremendous concern in my life.

I'm also somewhat obsessed, for reasons I can't quite understand, with the phenomenon of the "good German," in which a good person like Juan Guzmán can convince himself to not know that terrible things were happening in this country. I was interested in asking questions about the "good German" through making this film.

Lanfranco: I was 19 years old when the coup happened in 1973, and it affected me and my family, as well as hundreds of thousands more. Pinochet's regime was a tragedy for Chile: Within three decades, Chile went from an elected, socialist government to one of the most brutal dictatorships in South America, one of the most brutal neoliberal governments. It has been very hard for Chile as a society to experience all these changes in such a short time.

Judge Guzmán goes through a transformation in the film. He finally acknowledges what has been going on and sees the truth. One of the hopes I had for the film was to encourage the same kind of transformation in Chilean society. The Pinochet regime was a huge mistake that we committed as a society, and it is important for Chileans to see the truth and make sure this situation could never happen again.

POV: Judge Guzmán was blind to the situation in Chile for many years. Despite your respect for him, did you ever wonder why he was so blind for so long?

Lanfranco: It's interesting, because when I was a young man I was very passionate, especially about the struggle against Pinochet's dictatorship. At the time I couldn't believe that people didn't know about the horrible things that were happening in Chile. But then after I met Judge Guzmán, I started to understand that there was another reality at that time in Chile, and that was the reality for millions of people who were blind to the situation. Chile had a curfew for 15 years, and the news was censored. So that means that ... unless it was a neighbor [or] a relative, millions of people were absolutely blind to what was going on.

In the 70s and 80s, people had to do things ,and it didn't matter if they liked it or not. In any TV station there was a military guy saying what you can or cannot read as news. So if you are a journalist and you are hired to read the news, you had to read what they said to read. And that doesn't make you [an] accomplice of the situation. It's just the way that it was.

That's how brutal Pinochet was — not only when he was killing people, not only when he was torturing people, not only when he was kidnapping people — it was the day-to-day life of being humiliated in a way that you cannot believe. And you get used to it, which is the worst thing. You get used to it. 

So then to come back and try to be a normal country again is an enormous task. And that's why there are still people denying this happened. Totalitarian countries, when they become free, still keep going in the totalitarian way. That's one of the hardest things to defeat in our society. But Guzmán shows that it is never too late to be a good human being, to recognize one's own mistakes and one's own blindness and take responsibility for it.

POV: What is Chile like today?

Lanfranco: It's not bad. I mean, our country now is really relieved. Young people are having a great time in the streets. You can see cafes full of young people having beers and whatever.  But people like me still get nervous if a car follows you for more than ten seconds, or if you notice that there is an engine running beside you because that was the way that the people were kidnapped.  So, you know...

POV: It's hard to forget.

Lanfranco: It's hard to abandon that kind of thinking. Yes.

POV: The film is incredibly suspenseful, with the audience not knowing what is going to happen next. Did you encounter any surprises during the making of the film?

Farnsworth: There were many surprises during the film. There are two in particular that I want to mention here. There's a moment in the film that will be surprising to many people. It has to do with Judge Juan Guzmán's role in the denial of habeas corpus petitions as a young clerk. This was a big surprise to me. It was something we hadn't known before we got there, and it became a very important part of the film.

The other surprise happened when we interviewed the mother of Cecilia Castro, whose case was one of the two we followed. We met Edita Castro, Cecilia's mother, as she was part of a group of women who had been with Judge Guzmán in the police station. He asked for more information from them, and after that meeting, we asked to interview some of those women again. So when we talked to Edita, there had been no pre-interview. I sat down and Edita told her story, which was that she had to choose between the lives of her daughter and her granddaughter — she had a "Sophie's choice." And she gave up her daughter to save her granddaughter's life. Honestly, we didn't quite grasp what she was saying in the moment. It wasn't until we heard the tape later that we understood the implication of what she had been saying. I broke down and wept after I heard the tape. That was a very powerful and surprising moment for me.

POV: Why do you think the story of Judge Guzmán is relevant to audiences today, not just in Chile, but around the world?

Farnsworth: We screened the film in San Francisco, and many people said after they watched The Judge and the General, that the film evokes concerns about America and what's happening today. In making the film, Patricio and I certainly didn't make any relationship between what's going on in America today and what was going on in Chile explicit, but I do think these are universal experiences. Around the world, governments do things their people wish they wouldn't do. This is not just a Chilean story, it's a universal story.