Juan Guzmán investigates a murder.

Manuel Donoso

Cecilia (Chechi) Castro

Filmmakers Elizabeth Farnsworth, Patricio Lanfranco and Richard Pearce have been deeply affected by events in Chile since the election of President Salvador Allende in 1970. As filmmakers and journalists, they have — in film, video, and newsprint — covered the horrors and heroism of Chilean history for four decades. That history raises the most basic questions of our times: why do human beings believe that they are doing the right thing when they torture and murder in the name of some higher goal? And what can be done to atone for those crimes and provide some measure of justice to victims?

Appeals Court Judge Juan Guzmán opposed the democratically elected Salvador Allende and supported General Pinochet until being assigned, by judicial lottery in 1998, the first criminal cases against him. (Judges in Chile investigate and prosecute, as well as try, cases). As a young man, Guzmán had served briefly as a clerk in the Court of Appeals during the worst years of repression under Pinochet. Judges of that court had to decide on thousands of habeas corpus petitions filed on behalf of victims, many of whom had disappeared into secret detention centers. Nearly all the petitions were denied, and Juan Guzmán wrote some of those denials. Had they been granted, many lives would have been saved.

Because of his background, many of Judge Guzmán’s colleagues — attorneys and judges — doubted that he would actively pursue General Pinochet and others accused of human rights crimes. By the end of the film, viewers will know whether those detractors were right or wrong.

The filmmakers were granted unique access to Judge Guzmán’s criminal investigations, which take viewers deeply into two cases:

Manuel Donoso, a young sociology professor, was an activist and member of the same political party as Salvador Allende. Soldiers arrested Donoso at home shortly after the 1973 coup. The military claimed he died in an automobile accident en route to prison. As Judge Guzmán investigates, viewers learn whether the official story is true.

The other key case features Cecilia (Chechi) Castro, whose mother, Edita, faced a ghastly “Sophie’s Choice.” She led Pinochet’s secret police to her daughter’s hiding place in order to save a granddaughter’s life. Guzmán’s investigations reveal the dark truth behind these cases in a heart-breaking yet ultimately hopeful tale of redemption.

The Judge and the General has special relevance today, when terrorism and torture are top stories, and human rights abuses make headlines nearly every day. Guzmán’s actions have changed Chile, and by extension, the application of human rights law around the world. Human rights advocates say their work is strengthened because of what Guzmán accomplished in Chile at a time when few dared take on Pinochet.

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