A Documentary on Peru's Terror War

Susan Gerhard July 25, 2006

Here’s an assignment for The White House’s “Department of Lessons Learned” (yes, in case you haven’t heard, there is one!): Find a country that conducted a 20-year “war on terror,” which included the dissolution of democratic government, the use of traditional military to fight a guerilla war, and the compromise of the free press in the name of social stability — and see what became of it. The Dep’t wouldn’t have to travel too far, not even out of the The New World. They’d simply have to turn their attentions south: Peru, as it turns out, bled through a horrific two-decades of Shining Path terror and the government’s reaction to it, and now lives with the permanent scars. (For the Dep’t of Lessons Learned: There was an upside. The President who shut down the democratic process did eventually have to flee the continent.)

This week, one film on the subject plays a local theater — Pamela Yates, Paco de Onís, and Peter Kinoy’s “State of Fear” is at the Roxie Film Center starting this Friday — while another just hit your TV (Ellen Perry’s “The Fall of Fujimori” played PBS stations July 18, care of the POV series). While both are fascinating documents, they differ in perspective. Perry’s film tracks down the exiled leader who took advantage of Peru’s public fear to dissolve the country’s Congress. Yates, de Onís, and Kinoy’s film examines the Peruvian human rights movement’s attempts to set the record, and the nation, straight, through its Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. With the courageous work of photo journalists as its backbone, “State of Fear” moves through the stories of characters on many sides of the struggle. One is an ex child-soldier who recalls killing at age 11 was as addictive as candy. Another is a Marine who recalls his entering villages to torture suspected terrorists before killing them. And another is an upperclass lawyer who’d been part of the Fujimori government belatedly made to understand the how class warfare is tearing her country apart. I got the opportunity to ask the film’s director, Yates — a veteran of nonfiction filmmaking (“When the Mountains Tremble,” “Presumed Guilty,” and Michael Moore’s “TV Nation”) — a few questions over email this past weekend.

SF360: You’ve framed this film as a cautionary tale for a country like the United States. Could you could distill a few of the most important of lessons from Peru’s 20-year struggle for us?

Pamela Yates: It’s always difficult making history exciting in a non-fiction film. I was constantly thinking about how the story of Peru’s epic war on terror would interest Americans. Why would they care about what the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission was meticulously uncovering? What could they learn for their own lives? In the intense atmosphere of the Truth Commission’s public hearings, I discovered the startling parallels between Peru’s War on Terror and the unfolding U.S. global War on Terror: the use of a conventional military response to an insurgency; the undermining of democratic institutions in the name of fighting terrorism; the use of fear of terrorism by government to justify authoritarian measures and expanded powers; and the manipulation of media to influence public opinion. My filmmaking partners, Peter Kinoy (the editor) and Paco de On