by Peter Raymont
The creative collaboration of Peter Raymont & Ariel Dorfman
I met Ariel Dorfman for the first time in April, 2005 at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina. I'd been invited to screen Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire. Dorfman, who lives and teaches at Duke University, was the moderator of a panel, “The Artist in a Time of War” featuring several filmmakers, including Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight”) and myself. Ariel opened the discussion by reading a powerful poem he had written just for the occasion. I was blown away by this articulate, gentle, caring man. We became fast friends. During that summer we emailed each other many times and decided to work together to create an imaginative, creative documentary film about exile, identity and belonging.
Our first shooting took place in New York City, in November, 2005, supported by the Canadian broadcaster, BRAVO. Ariel was launching a new off-Broadway play he'd written about war The Other Side. We filmed rehearsals, opening night, and then sequences with Ariel at the Statue of Liberty and other meaningful locations in New York, including the site of the former World Trade Centre. This was Ariel's first visit to this haunted “9/11” gravesite. I was enormously impressed with his effortlessly articulate thoughts that kept spilling poetically from his sharp and sensitive mind. I could feel there was the possibility here for the creation of an extraordinary documentary film.
In April, last year, I pitched the production to the many broadcasters and distributors, gathered at the Toronto Documentary Forum (part of Hot Docs), accompanied by Dorfman's eldest son, filmmaker, Rodrigo Dorfman. Several broadcasters came on board including National Geographic Latin America, The Humanist Channel in the Netherlands SBS, SVT and later, the BBC. U.S. broadcast rights have also been acquired by ITVS and the film is supported by a grant from The Sundance Documentary Fund.
In October of last year, I brought my dear wife and filmmaking partner, Lindalee Tracey to a Toronto hospital. She was suffering through the last, painful stages of cancer. During each of Lindalee's final days in palliative care, Ariel sent me a poem which I read to her. Poems by the Persian poet, Rumi and by Ariel himself. So Lindalee slipped away with Ariel's and Rumi's lovely words swimming in her mind.
Ariel had planned to travel to Chile just a few weeks after Lindalee's passing. Though I was still very much in shock and mourning and having difficulty functioning, I felt compelled to go with him and make this film. Lindalee had been so supportive of this project and would have wanted me to go. So, while Ariel had his “promise to the dead” – to those dear companeros who were brutally killed in Pinochet's military coup 33 years before, I, too, had very personal promises to keep.
So off we went, with a the terrific film crew of photographer, Mark Ellam, sound-recordist, Ao Loo, translator Yunit Armengol and Ariel's eldest son, Rodrigo as associate producer. We shot the film in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Santiago Chile in late November-early December, 2006. We captured some extraordinary personal moments, including a painful trip through a Buenos Aires cemetery in search of Ariel's grandparents tomb, and an extraordinary morning in Santiago when Ariel's nemesis General Augusto Pinochet, died of a heart attack.
Later we shot a six-hour interview with Dorfman and some lovely scenes with his grandchildren at his home in North Carolina; and I flew to London for an interview with the great actress, Juliet Stevenson.
Ariel has been intimately involved with the film's editing, making constructive suggestions throughout the process, while his wife Angélica has provided us with a wealth of family photos and home movies. The film is informed, in part, by his critically acclaimed memoir “Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey”.
We are honoured that our film has been selected by the Toronto International Film Festival programmers and will have its world premiere here, where I live. Three years ago, TIFF premiered Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire , which went on to award-winning screenings at the Sundance, Philadelphia and Paris Human Rights Film Festivals, plus much theatrical and TV exposure. We are optimistic that A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman will follow a similar path and provoke lively debate and discussion at theatrical, festival and TV venues around the world. Though we live in “the Americas”, we know so little about the lives and experiences of our brothers and sisters in the southern hemisphere.
I am deeply honoured that Ariel Dorfman chose to trust me with his life story. It has been an extraordinary, intimate journey of discovery. We are keeping our promises.
Peter Raymont, July 2007