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”.
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.
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.