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A Promise to the Dead

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A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman is an exploration of exile, memory, longing and democracy as seen through the experiences of the world-renowned writer, Ariel Dorfman.
Dorfman became Cultural Advisor to the Chief of Staff of Chile’s socialist president Salvador Allende. He was among a handful of Allende’s inner circle to survive. Years later, he was told that his life was spared because “someone had to live to tell the story”.


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Running Time: 52/90 min.
Subject(s): Arts and Culture, Biography, History, Human Rights, Latin American Studies, Literature, Society
Language(s): English
Director(s):
Producer(s): Peter Raymont
Cinematographer: MARK ELLAM
Editor(s): MICHÈLE HOZER
Production Company: A White Pine Pictures Production

Press

  • A profile in courage colored with the anxiety of a human rights activist faced with painful moral choices…You can read about men and women who stand up to injustice and feel a shuddering admiration. But to absorb a documentary film about such a person is a more intense and potentially life-changing experience.
    NEW YORK TIMES
    Stephen Holden
  • A...powerful, at times unforgettable, documentary...The blend of archival news footage with his (Ariel Dorfman) personal, vivid memories is exemplary and beautifully done. It's utterly compelling and definitely worth seeing... it's a must-see because you soon earn that it's about more than Chile. It's about how the world works.
    THE GLOBE AND MAIL
    John Doyle
  • An intimately revealing portrait
    THE TORONTO STAR
    Geoff Pevere
  • Bright, crisp …. An incredible account …. Raymont does a wonderful job …. you come out informed and moved...
    CINEMATICAL, AOL.COM
    Monika Bartyzel
  • An emotional journey through the volatile landscape of a country torn apart by political ideologies, as seen through the eyes of a man whose own experience was at the heart of Chile's bloody political power struggle in the 1970s
    CTV.CA
    Andy Johnson
  • On the Toronto International Film Festival's red carpet, documentaries about war, politics and repression are breaking through with festival audiences
    HOLLYWOOD REPORTER
    Etan Vlessing
  • Eloquent, rapt, poetic … There a richness to the images that torpedoes the notion that style and substance need to be exclusive concepts
    POV MAGAZINE
    Adam Nayman
  • Please go see A Promise to the Dead... It will draw you in and the world disappears for the next 90 minutes.
    PORTLAND INDY MEDIA CENTRE
    Julia La Tia

Festival & Awards

  • Toronto International Film Festival - 2007
    Chosen as one of the top 10 films of 2007
    Chosen as one of the top 10 films of 2007
  • International Documentary Festival Amsterdam - 2007
  • Possible Worlds Film Festival - 2007
  • Montreal Festival Du Nouveau Cinema - 2007
  • Festival Internacional Del Neuvo Cine Latinoamericano - 2007
  • Dubai International Film Festival - 2007
  • Sheffield Documentary Film Festival - 2007
  • Leipzig Documentary Film Festival - 2007
  • Sao Paulo International Film Festival - 2007
  • Cork International Film Festival - 2007
  • Gemini Awards - 2008
    Gemini Award for Best Social/Political Documentary
  • London Human Rights Watch Film Festival - 2008
  • Planete Doc Review - 2008
  • New York Human Rights Watch Film Festival - 2008
  • Sonoma Valley Film Festival - 2008
  • Instanbul International Film Festival, Turkey - 2008
  • Full Frame Film Festival, USA - 2008
  • Hong Kong International Film Festival, China - 2008
  • Amnesty International Film Festival, Netherlands - 2008
  • Bermuda International Film Festival, Bermuda - 2008
  • Palm Springs Film Festival, USA - 2008
  • Rodos Eco Festival, Greece - 2008
  • Documenta Madrid International Documentary Film Festival, Spain - 2008

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  • SYNOPSIS

    A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman is an exploration of exile, memory, longing and democracy as seen through the experiences of the world-renowned writer, Ariel Dorfman – author of numerous works of fiction, plays and essays in Spanish and English. Dorfman’s books (including ‘Death and the Maiden’, ‘In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land’, ‘How to Read Donald Duck’ and ‘Other Septembers’) have been translated into over 40 languages and his plays performed in more than 100 countries.

    Born in Argentina, but raised in New York until his family was exiled to Chile during the Red Scare, Dorfman became Cultural Advisor to the Chief of Staff of Chile’s socialist president Salvador Allende. When the democratically elected government was toppled in the military coup of September 11, 1973, Dorfman was among a handful of Allende’s inner circle to survive. Years later, he was told that his life was spared because “someone had to live to tell the story”.

    A Promise to the Dead was filmed in the USA, Argentina and Chile in late 2006, coinciding with the death of former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet. The film is based, in part, on Dorfman’s best-selling memoir, ‘Heading South, Looking North’.

    Dorfman currently teaches at Duke University and lives with his family in Durham, North Carolina.

  • A PROMISE TO THE DEAD: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman by Monika Bartyzel

    One of the biggest challenges that faces a documentary filmmaker is balancing the pursuit of passion and emotion with the quest to inform. To dig too deep in one leaves the possibility of short-changing the other. With fiction, they can be created together so that both thrive. With a documentary, however, there isn’t that luxury. For Peter Raymont’s latest film, A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman, one excels at the expense of the other. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    Promise unfolds the life of writer and activist Ariel Dorfman, and how it intertwines with Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 Chilean coup against then-president Salvador Allende. At the time, Dorfman was a Cultural Adviser and should have been called to the capitol building when it was under attack — but he later learned his name was crossed off the list so that he’d survive to tell the story. And it is an incredible account — one that discusses not only the life of a man in exile, but the drive of passion.

    At its core, the documentary is the story of Dorfman’s struggle to define his home, and how his life is intertwined with the events of September 11, 1973 — a date that was to once again haunt him in an eerily similar manner many years later. Raymont brings us into the writer’s world, teaching of us about Dorfman’s political and intellectual bloodline, as well as the horrors that befell the country when Pinochet gained control. The documentary excels at telling the story — both through Ariel’s peaceful eloquence and relaying enough information to give viewers an understanding of the man and the context, without getting bogged down in details.

    There are scenes where Raymont starts to tap into the real moments — particularly when Dorfman marches down a path with old friends, chanting as they did three decades ago. As the three march, you can feel the strength of their conviction, and feel as though you right there with them.

    You understand Dorfman’s experience, the coup and also the lives of those who were not exiled. Raymont does a wonderful job of putting the story together and filming the personality of Dorfman — his peaceful manner, passion and intelligence. A Promise to the Dead will make you feel, and think, and learn, but most of all, it will leave you with the power of Dorfman’s conviction — passion without violence.

     

  • DEATH AND THE DOCUMENTARIAN

    After his acclaimed film about Roméo Dallaire and Rwanda, director Peter Raymont turns to another witness to a national tragedy – Chile’s Ariel Dorfman

    LIAM LACEY

    Globe and Mail, September 5, 2007

    The past couple of years have been a period of career highs and personal loss for Toronto filmmaker Peter Raymont. His wife, documentary filmmaker Lindalee Tracey, succumbed to cancer last October after a five-year illness.

    Throughout 2005 and 2006, Raymont had seen international recognition for one of the more than 100 documentaries he has made in his 35-year career. Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival and the top prize at the International Human Rights Film Festival in Paris and received positive reviews across North America. It also brought him to the Full Frame documentary festival in Durham, N.C., in April, 2005, where he was a member of a panel called The Artist in the Time of War.

    The moderator was writer Ariel Dorfman, a professor at nearby Duke University and a writer intimately associated with human rights (Death and the Maiden) and particularly the Chilean coup of 1973. Dorfman opened the panel with a poem he had written for the occasion.

    Raymont says he was “blown away” by Dorfman. Expecting an intimidating, and perhaps embittered, leftist intellectual who was famous for his contentious writings, instead he met an articulate, gentle man brimming with affection and interest in other people.

    Like Dallaire, Dorfman is a person marked by a historical trauma who seemed to have come back from the pit with a sense of mission. Critics sometimes call him overbearing, but that impression is diminished in person, or on film. Dorfman speaks extremely well on his feet and has a great deal of personal charm.

    Initially, Raymont shot a short film in New York, where Dorfman spent his childhood, for Canadian television’s Bravo! channel.

    Dorfman has written before about the parallel assaults on two cities of his life, Santiago and New York, 28 years apart on the same date. When the film was finished, Raymont knew that he had the makings of a longer movie.

    Dorfman’s life has given him insights into not only terrorism, but also exile. The child of Eastern European Jews who had fled from the Nazis, he was born in Argentina in 1942, but raised in the United States until the age of 12. His father, an economist with the United Nations, was forced to relocate to Chile during the anti-communist witch hunts of the fifties. Later, as a cocky young leftist literature professor at the University of Chile (he wrote the bestselling cultural-theory book How to Read Donald Duck), he served as a cultural adviser to Salvador Allende’s democratically elected Marxist government. During the Sept. 11, 1973, military coup, he was marked for death. By chance, he escaped, initially leaving his family behind, before they relocated to Europe.

    I had met Dorfman 10 years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival and I mention that I shared Raymont’s initial surprise at his warmth and openness. “It took a long time for that man to come out,” Dorfman says. For a couple of years after the coup, he felt sickened by anything that felt like political jargon: “I risked becoming a very bitter person, a vengeful person, and I couldn’t write. I couldn’t find the words against the darkness. I didn’t want to perpetuate the old language of the past. What I think happened is that I began hearing the voices of the disappeared and felt I was at a gathering point of the living and the dead. I wrote poems that were very direct and simple, as if my mother and sisters were breathing the words into me. I was resurrected by their words.”

    The poems he created were published under the title Missing by Amnesty International in 1982. Most of his works since then, to use his words, are keeping “a promise to the dead,” a phrase that has become the title of the new Peter Raymont documentary about Dorfman, which has its premiere at TIFF this Saturday.

    Dorfman felt that Raymont “had the right distance and the right proximity” to his story. He knew Raymont had previously made films about Latin America and human-rights issues. He also knew he had “personal pain,” and the film would be about grief, not confrontation – a film not about revisiting the scene of the crime so much as going there to deliver a kind of elegy for the victims.

    Raymont had pitched the idea of a film on Dorfman at the Toronto Documentary Forum at the Hot Docs festival in April, 2006, and secured financing from a variety of international broadcasters, including the National Geographic Latin America and the British Broadcasting Corp.

    Before the film began shooting in November of last year, Raymont’s wife became more ill. Near death, she entered palliative care at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital and Raymont stayed with her in her room. Dorfman sent daily poems for him to read to her, sometimes his own, sometimes those of the 12th-century Sufi poet known as Rumi.

    Raymont approached two other directors and asked them if they would pick up the project. Neither was available, but Dorfman was planning a trip back to Chile and Raymont decided to go as well just weeks after his wife’s death. “I think it was a good decision, therapeutic on many levels,” Dorfman says. “We all felt Lindalee’s spirit was there with us.”

    “For the first couple of weeks, my mind wasn’t really in it,” Raymont adds. “I didn’t think I should be there, but then it seemed that Lindalee was really supportive of me doing this. In a way, it became another kind of promise to the dead.”

    The resulting film is a collaboration. Raymont preferred to have Dorfman provide the narration for his own story and, to a point, follow the writer’s quest to find an old photograph from before the coup. They never found it, but Dorfman says: “I think perhaps the best quests are those where you don’t find what you were looking for, but something else.”

    There are visits with old friends and a woman who kept him in a safe house, at risk to her own life. One of the most compelling scenes involves a trip to the basement of the Allende Centre, in memory of former president Salvador Allende, which preserves some of the tubes of twisted phone wires used to tap into the private conversations of Chile’s citizens under the dictatorship.

    Shortly after the film was finished and Raymont was taking a vacation on Easter Island, he heard that General Augusto Pinochet had died. It was Dorfman’s son, Rodrigo, who filmed his father’s reaction to the news and encounters with mourners for the dictator on the streets of Santiago. One woman calls Dorfman ” a dirty Communist.” He expresses regret for her grief.

    Dorfman doesn’t contend that he’s beyond hate, only that he refuses to play by tyrants’ rules: “It’s a great kick being a victim,” he says. “It means you are without sin and can do anything to anyone. Bin Laden allowed Americans to feel like victims, and that’s a terribly dangerous thing.”

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