Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Press Freedom

CHILE: Documentary Reveals Injustices Endured by Mapuches – and Filmmaker

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Oct 25 2010 (IPS) - Finally, her documentary film about the indigenous Mapuche people has reached theatres in Chile and in other countries. Elena Varela was in the midst of making the film when she was imprisoned on charges for which she has now been completely cleared.

“Something good always comes from bad. Although (the police) seized a lot of material and they returned tapes to me that were destroyed, the film ended up having even greater force,” said Varela about her film “Newen Mapuche” (Strength of the People of the Earth, in Mapudungun, the Mapuche language), which was previewed Oct. 12 in the Chilean capital and has begun making the rounds of film festivals.

Like the life of its author, the original plan for the documentary underwent big change. The film about Mapuche demands for justice begins with Varela’s arrest and ends with her unconditional release in April.

The Mapuches are Chile’s most numerous indigenous group — about one million — in a country of nearly 17 million people.

The documentarist was arrested May 7, 2008, at her home in the town of Villarica, in the southern Chilean region of Araucanía, accused of planning two robberies, allegedly committed in 2004 and 2005 by a cell of the insurgent Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), a group that originally took up arms against the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990).

In a unanimous ruling Varela was declared innocent on all charges.

In addition to “Newen Mapuche,” at the time of her arrest Varela was directing the documentary “Sueños del Comandante” (Dreams of the Commander) about the killing of MIR members by agents of the dictatorship in Neltume, a town in the Andean foothills.

The police seized 300 tapes. Not all were returned and some were returned in poor state, said Varela, who has not ruled out legal action against those responsible for the damage.

“I lost 300 to 500 hours of work on the two documentaries,” she said.

The film preview of “Newen Mapuche” took place the Alameda Art Centre, where the theatre was packed with people. Later, the documentary was screened at the 17th International Film Festival of Validivia, a city in the southern Chilean region of Los Lagos, Oct. 14-19.

High expectations turned into strong emotions for most of the audience, according to festival reviews.

Now the film has been invited to participate in several national contests, like the Viña del Mar Film Festival, Nov. 15-20 in the Atlantic resort city in the central region of Valparaíso.

It is also being presented at the 5th International Documentary Film Festival under way in Mexico City, and the 4th Documentary Film Exposition organised by the Association of Argentine Documentarists, Nov. 18-24 in Buenos Aires.

Varela is looking for funding to subtitle the film in English and French so she can respond to requests for copies coming from Belgium, Canada, France and Sweden, in addition to the Spanish-speaking Spain, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Though already in distribution, Varela plans to nominate “Newen Mapuche” for national funds in order to polish the post-production of the film and transfer it to 35 mm format, with sights on premiering a definitive version in February.

The filmmaker believes that the legal proceedings against her were a government-led effort in which “false evidence and protected witnesses” were abundant, although she does not give names of the supposed individuals or institutions involved.

Her case has mobilised journalists, audiovisual artists and public figures, both national and international, upset mainly by the fact that her material was seized. They cite the journalist’s right not to name her sources.

“The case of Elena Varela worried us from the beginning, considering above all the violation of the work’s intellectual property that was seized,” Viviana Erpel, president of the Association of Documentarists of Chile (ADOC), told IPS.

“We believe that the work of the documentarist, in general, was attacked and that Varela’s effort in particular was wrongly utilised as ‘evidence’ in a case that had no legal basis,” said Erpel.

“This causes a great deal of concern because we feel vulnerable to the government apparatus that executed those judicial actions, which I myself believe is not healthy and does not belong in a democratic government,” she said.

In 2008, ADOC and other human rights organisations turned to the Inter- American Commission on Human Rights, attached to the Organisation of American States and based in Washington DC, to request precautionary measures for Varela’s legal protection.

The Audiovisual Platform, an umbrella group including ADOC and other guilds, also promoted a legislative bill, in Chilean Parliament since 2008, that would regulate the professional right to protect sources in audiovisual works.

“The image is powerful,” commented Varela, reflecting on the function of documentarists in protecting human rights — in her case, those of the Mapuches. In the late 1800s, the Mapuche people saw most of their land usurped by the Chilean government and then end up in private hands.

“The struggle of the Mapuche people is very painful, very difficult,” said Varela, who believes that a hunger strike by some 30 Mapuche prisoners, lasting more than 80 days until early October, had only “limited results.”

“The deeper problem, the one they are fighting for — their dignity as a people –” is still relevant, she said.

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