ReMastered: Massacre at the Stadium movie review — A fitting tribute to Victor Jara's life and legacy
Massacre at the Stadium, the new Netflix documentary, could have been just another account of a historic injustice. But in choosing to go further and depicting a protracted struggle for justice, it shape shifts into something far more important.
Massacre at the Stadium, the Netflix documentary, could have been just another account of a historic injustice. But in choosing to go further and depicting a protracted struggle for justice, it shape shifts into something far more important. It is meant to be the story of Victor Jara, the wildly popular Chilean singer-songwriter who was tortured and murdered by soldiers loyal to dictator Augusto Pinochet on 16 September, 1973. The story of a day the music died. Instead, director BJ Perlmutt’s film decides to trace the echoes of Jara’s songs and poetry as they resound after his passing, seeking justice for himself and his country, both so dreadfully wronged by the events that took place in September 1973.
It brings Joan Jara, Victor’s wife, onto centre stage, as she joins hands with a handful of courageous lawyers and activists to mount a more than 40-year-long struggle for justice. Perlmutt’s film is really about these activists keeping the flame of Jara’s thought alive in the face of mounting oppression and indifference. It is a fitting tribute to a man whose voice and songs belonged to and were birthed in the music and toil of the daily lives of ordinary Chileans.
On 11 September 1973, Salvador Allende, the democratically elected President of Chile, facing a coup led by Pinochet, allegedly committed suicide. That ended the rule of the first ever Marxist to be elected to the national presidency of a liberal democracy anywhere in the world. The coup was enabled by a United States government terrified by the growing influence of communism across Latin America. Pinochet assumed power not long after and let loose a reign of terror across Chile in an effort to silence all dissent. Jara, along with 3,000 others, was removed from the university where he was taking shelter and thrown into the Chile Stadium in Santiago where he was murdered a few days later.
Having spent time deliberating on Jara’s music and his murder to this point, Perlmutt then goes into investigative mode. He tracks down the soldier widely believed to have shot Jara. Barrientos, the soldier, currently resides in Florida, having fled there as soon as he suspected the tide turning against Pinochet in the late '80s. The film becomes an account of Joan’s attempts to bring Barrientos and those he commanded at the stadium, to trial. Barrientos maintains his innocence throughout the documentary.
Perlmutt even goes to the lengths of letting Barrientos and his family have their say. They provide their own version of the lives of people during the Allende regime, the want and the mounting disorder. Although the documentary does a good job of describing the United States’ support for Pinochet, the film would have benefitted by depicting World Bank’s role in tightening the noose around Allende’s government during his years in power. Nevertheless, Perlmutt’s decision to give Barrientos and co. sufficient airtime to put forth their case lends heft to the narrative. Later, he presents evidence against and for Barrientos with similar objectivity.
I’m not certain how I feel about Perlmutt’s decision to refrain from divulging details about Jara’s torture, which is a painful, necessary and deeply affecting story. Jara spent the last few moments exhorting his fellows to sing along with him even as he was humiliated and tortured by the soldiers. It is a testament to his undying spirit and belief in human liberty that even in the face of endless pain and despair he chose to scatter the seeds of hope. Perlmutt rightly focuses on Joan’s efforts to achieve justice for her husband. He brings us face to face with the men who might have led to his death. Joan’s centrality to the narrative achieves Jara’s aim of finding hope in the darkest of places in one fell sweep. But a few minutes spent exploring life under Pinochet during the years that Joan struggled for justice could have added substantial heft to the film. I strongly recommend the reader watch Nostalgia for the Light, the brilliant 2010 documentary by Patricio Guzman, to understand Pinochet’s troubling and bloody legacy.
Massacre at the Stadium begins as an account of the 9/11 that you should know about. The story of a beautiful soul whose hopes and dreams for his country and its people were laid waste by the spectre of competing ideologies and greed. Perlmutt’s film is far from an exhaustive document of Jara and his wronged land. But its message of hope during mounting despair is an illuminating corrective for the times we are living in.
“Song, I cannot sing you well/ When I must sing out of fear./ When I am dying of fright./ When I find myself in these endless moments./ Where silence and cries are the echoes of my song.” Jara wrote these lines inside the stadium just before he was killed by the soldiers. The stadium, standing in the middle of Santiago, is today named after him. Apart from Barrientos, who resists extradition to this day, the other guards have been sentenced by Chilean courts. Chile is a democracy. Clearly, silence and cries aren’t the only echoes of his song.
ReMastered: Massacre at the Stadium is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here —
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