PROMISES TO KEEP
by Ariel Dorfman
I'm a child of the movies, so I guess I can't help it.
All my life, even at the most dangerous moments, yes, even when I was being hunted down by the Pinochet dictatorship, somewhere inside my body running, inside my body hiding, inside my exiled body, a breathless voice kept absurdly whispering: If I survive, hey, this would make an interesting movie!
But I was a writer and not a film maker and so, eventually, I did what I have always done in order to defeat death: I turned those personal experiences, my strange and estranged and fervent wanderings, into words. Stories were born, plays, novels and, ultimately, a memoir. As if that could stop the quiet voice that continued to stir somewhere inside, an insistent reminder that there a film was still waiting to be made.
And then, September 11th 2001 came along. A second September 11th, because the first one had been Chilean, my first September 11th had been in 1973, when terror was also inflicted on the innocent, when death also rained down from the sky, sending me into exile, making me into the man I have now become, filling me with murdered friends and compaňeros who kept asking me to tell our story and theirs, to tell the world what had happened.
It was 9/11, that second September 11th, that revived my interest in filming my life. Because the attacks against the United States did not lead its people to meditate creatively upon history and violence, to figure out a way to imagine a world where such devastation would no longer be conceivable. Instead, overcome with fear, they allowed their country to be hijacked into war and revenge and false victim hood. All of which heightened my sense that there might be some value in exploring again a possible film based on my life, on what I had learned and the people of Chile had learned from the sorrows of intolerance and the bleakness of tyranny, how we had grown from our ashes, how we had dealt with our pain and overcome the legacy of terror, some value in presenting how I had personally dealt with the suffering, the rage, the need for reconciliation, the need never to forget.
But you don't give the story of your life to just anybody.
I was fortunate enough to be asked by Cara Mertes to host a panel at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and it was there that I encountered Peter Raymont and Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire , and the same voice inside which had murmured to me in my most perilous moments now said, you know, he might understand, he might be crazy enough to follow me around as I search for an answer, as I search for my dead and the promises I made, the promises I tried to keep, the promises I am still not sure that I really kept, that anyone can keep. Maybe he's the one.
Peter Raymont was the one.
It was not just the talent and his eye for beauty and truth which I would come to admire in the years it took us to make A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman. It was something deeper in him and those he worked with. I found a man who was close enough to grief, fascinated enough in my ethical dilemmas and the cliffs and paradoxes of a country looking for a way out of its brush with evil, to respect my own quest. And, at the same time, a man distant enough from the horror so that he could act as a calm bridge for so many of our contemporaries who are in dire need of understanding this sort of story, the complex consequences of repression, the difficulties of holding on to our resistant humanity in the midst of the travails of banishment and loss.
It has been a joy to work on this film, finally satisfying that voice which has accompanied me during the worst and the best moments of my divided bilingual life, finally being able to insolently respond to that inside voice, well, here it is, we are doing our best, we can't film the past, but we can film our search for that past, maybe we can even find a way to defeat death or at least, at least, diminish its dominion.
Ariel Dorfman, July 2007