Minnesota-born TV journalist documents the ‘other 9/11’ in ‘The Judge and the General’

Directors Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco
PBS/POV
Directors Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco

In the homeland-security era, news stories that don’t immediately appear to hit “close to home” can pose a threat to U.S. media gatekeepers.

To put it another way: One casualty of the war on terror has been the reporting of conflicts outside the Middle East and/or from before 9/11.

Veteran “NewsHour” correspondent Elizabeth Farnsworth, who’ll be at Walker Art Center on Thursday night to introduce a free screening of her documentary about the indictment of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet by conservative judge Juan Guzmán, says she had a “terrible time” getting funding for the movie, “The Judge and the General.”

“In 2004, I started telling people about my idea for a film about Chile,” the Bay Area-based journalist recalls. “What I heard repeatedly was, ‘Chile? No one cares about that right now.’ “

Working with co-director Patricio Lanfranco, Farnsworth, who was born in Minneapolis and has taken summer vacations in Alexandria for decades, eventually secured a MacArthur Foundation grant to begin work on the film. And as the PBS-affiliated Independent Television Service (ITVS) stepped in to deliver additional funds, it became evident that the story of a CIA-sponsored right-wing torturer may be hitting close to home after all.

“I don’t really make analogies between what happened in Chile and what has been happening in the U.S., because they’re very different situations,” Farnsworth explains. “And my original attraction to the project was not because of its connection to [the current U.S. administration]. But it certainly was in my mind.”

Billed as a “cautionary tale,” “The Judge and the General,” which kicks off the Walker’s “Cinema of Urgency” series (and airs Aug. 19 on PBS stations), is an implicit indictment not only of Pinochet, but of the passivity that helped keep him in power for 17 years, starting with the coup d’etat against democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende on Sept. 11, 1973.

Judge Guzman and detectives oversee a disinterment
PBS/POV
Judge Guzman and detectives oversee a disinterment in a scene from “The Judge and the General.”

Rare archival clips are expertly stitched together by native Minneapolitan editor Blair Gershkow, who insisted on maintaining a propulsive energy throughout the 90-minute running time. (Gershkow will also be in attendance at the Walker, and will answer questions along with Farnsworth after the screening.)

Yet for the two directors, the film is a psychological and philosophical inquiry more than anything.

“Patricio is obsessed with the question of how Guzmán and others like him — the ones who resisted Pinochet and gathered evidence against him — dared to do what they did,” says Farnsworth, “whereas my obsession has been with the question of what makes good people go along with terrible things like state terror.”

Almost 40 years ago, Farnsworth worked in Chile on a film, part documentary and part fiction — in the style of Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool” — about Allende’s election campaign.

“Chile had such a strong civic culture, even amid all the dirty tricks of the Nixon administration after the election of Allende. No one really believed that a coup could come. In Chile, to know people who supported Pinochet — people like Guzmán — was to feel dismayed. [Guzmán] remained thoughtful and literary in the ’70s, but he looked the other way at torture and terror. That’s what the film explores. When are we expected to risk our lives? Should Guzmán have stood up immediately and said, ‘You can kill me, but I’m not going to pen rejections of habeus corpus petitions ordered by higher judges?’ “

Farnsworth feels “The Judge and the General” is a universal story.

“All of us are confronted with choices constantly about when to stand up and when not to,” she says. “And these choices can have very lasting effects on our lives. [‘The Judge and the General’] is the story of someone who didn’t stand up at first, but then did. I think it’s a pretty good lesson. Do you know that [Guzmán] is the happiest person I know? As much as he didn’t want to do that investigation, it fulfilled him completely and profoundly. He understood that this was what his life had meant for him to do.”

Speaking of a life’s mission, Farnsworth, who has written for The Nation and Mother Jones, among other publications, says she was practically born a foreign correspondent.

Working since the mid-’90s with Jim Lehrer at “NewsHour,” she was chief correspondent for the program, then senior correspondent and, lately, a freelancer — traveling “all over the Middle East,” including Iraq and Iran, and covering stories in Haiti and Vietnam as well.

Despite her professional globetrotting, Farnsworth remains keenly attuned to what’s happening in the United States — not least to her beloved profession.

“So many people I know in different parts of the [journalism] business are talking to me about how difficult things have become,” she says. “There’s a revolution going on in journalism. On the one hand, I’m excited about all the new possibilities of online journalism — like the “Frontline/World” site, which has works in progress that people can comment on, along with forums where people from all over the globe will participate for days. I find that fascinating in terms of networking and community building. But in terms of newspapers, I’m very concerned about who’s going to pay for serious reporting. The buyouts at newspapers have been very disturbing. And think of the poor students who are graduating from journalism school. What are they going to do?”

Sounds like the natural-born journalist may have another documentary to make.

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