A Promise To The Dead: The Exile Journey Of Ariel Dorfman

A Promise To The Dead: The Exile Journey Of Ariel Dorfman


Reviewed by: David Stanners

Best known for his international play Death And The Maiden, Ariel Dorfman’s chequered life as a Chilean writer in exile is explored in great detail, in A Promise To The Dead. He reveals a hodge podge of memories, family ties, mixed identity, guilt and political turmoil as the driving forces shaping his life and which instilled a sense of purpose and duty into his most important work.

Dorfman was born in Argentina in 1942, but raised in New York after his father fled political persecution as a college lecturer in Argentina, but as McCarthyism swept 1950s America, his father felt the sting, and was again pushed away, this time to Chile where Ariel settled until 1973. Nowadays, after much toing and froing, from one life to the next, Dorfman lives and works in the US as a university professor, but his identity has, from an early age taken many twists and turns, precipitated by explosive political circumstances.

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It’s hard to pick a starting point in this documentary as its many tentacles crawl into Dorfman’s ever-changing life story, but from the outset his aim is to compare the modern day American 9/11 disaster with that of his own September 11th - which took place in 1973 when Augusto Pinochet’s military coup spelled an end to socialism under Salvador Allende in Chile, and a new life of political exile for Dorfman.

Dorfman’s esteemed status as cultural advisor to Allende (1970-73), Chile’s socialist President, was according to him, the best time of his life. Taking the trip back to Chile to visit old friends and acquaintances he waxes lyrical about the good old days before Pinochet’s dirty boot crushed what to him was a time when a quiet revolution of peace and hope was gathering pace in Chile.

Dorfman’s narrative goes back and forth between the freedom of his life in the States and that of his childhood, when he was greatly influenced by his grandmother - a strong and brilliant academic and interpreter to Trotsky during the Russian Revolution - who eventually had to flee persecution as a Jew. Seemingly born to live on the run, with a family history rooted in it, it was the events of 1973 and the tragedies that followed which set his life on a new trajectory.

Dorfman poignantly juxtaposes the proud memories of the demonstrations on the streets of Santiago, where the resistance movement shouted: “Allende, Allende, we will defend you,” with the brutality of the Pinochet’s military forces who arrested, and murdered many of his friends and then hammered the final nail in the coffin by refusing to return the bodies of those captured to their families for burial. This, along with the fact that Dorfman was offered protection by the socialist government with his name hidden in the hope that he’d be best placed to tell their story, fuelled his sense of guilt and strong sense of duty to expose the toxic corruption of the Pinochet regime while in exile.

If life comes down to a few seconds, standing at the crossroads on September 1973, Dorfman made a decision to walk across the road that would see him avoid certain death alongside his friends, a move which has riddled him with guilt. This forced him on a 15-year run from the authorities until at last 57 per cent of Chilean electorate put a democratic halt to Pinochet’s reign.

There’s a lot of meandering in this documentary back and forward around a dilly dallying narrative, which is, at times, a bit long winded. But this does not detract from the overall impact, and whether purposeful or not, certainly reflects the roller coaster lifestyle of Dorfman. He talks at great length of the pain he suffered, and feelings of displacement as he drifted through Paris, Amsterdam and New York, but there are moments of beauty, such as when he discusses the origins of the Tango – a dance created by exiles, which deals with loss and pain. On another day, and another subject, viewers may be stretching for the violins as there is a lot of talk of the artist's tortured soul, and how this fuelled his creativity.

But in this case, there seems nothing contrived about it. Dorfman appears to be the genuine article, and although his comfortable lifestyle in America may be viewed as a sell-out, the origins of his most famous play Death And The Maiden, where each character symbolises the history of Chile under Pinochet, bears the full brunt of his heart and soul.

Towards the end Dorfman talks of his unyielding desire to see Pinochet brought to justice; to have him tried in front of the families of the victim’s he tortured and denied peace of mind to, but as Pinochet dies without trial, Dorfman’s r’aison d’etre becomes to expose the lies and corruption of the Pinochet regime on national TV, and address a nation still strongly divided between support and hate for Pinochet.

In the end, there is an epochal feeling for Dorfman, and a real appreciation of the next generation’s positive endorsement of the future. Even if it’s from the armchair of his plush seminar room at Duke University, it seems that Dorfman has done his damndest to fulfil his promise to the dead.

Reviewed on: 07 Mar 2008
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A Promise To The Dead: The Exile Journey Of Ariel Dorfman packshot
An exploration of the exiled life of writer Ariel Dorfman.

Director: Peter Raymont

Writer: Ariel Dorfman, based on book Heading South, Looking North

Starring: Ariel Dorfman

Year: 2007

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: Canada


Human Rights 2008

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