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Meet the Filmmakers: Peter Raymont--'A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman'

By Tom White

Over the next couple of weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, August 17-23. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films-the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Peter Raymont, director/producer of A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman.

Synopsis: This film is an exploration of exile, memory, longing and democracy, as seen through the experiences of world-renowned writer Ariel Dorfman. His numerous works of fiction, plays and essays in Spanish and English (including Death and the Maiden, Last Waltz in Santiago, How to Read Donald Duck) have been translated into over 30 languages.


IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Peter Raymont: I am a child of the '60s. I made my first film as a student at Queen's University in Canada in 1969. It was called Blue and it explored the alienation students experience in their first year at university. I made a few other student films and was fortunate to land a job at the National Film Board of Canada in Montreal as a film editor. I was 21. I edited, then directed and produced many films during a seven-year career at the NFB, traveling across Canada and around the world. It was an extraordinary introduction to documentary filmmaking. I created my own production company in 1979 in Toronto.


IDA: What inspired you to make A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman?

PR: I met writer/poet/novelist/human-rights activist Ariel Dorfman two years ago at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina. I had been invited to screen my feature documentary about the Rwandan genocide, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire. Dorfman moderated a panel I was on, "The Artist in a Time of War." I was enormously impressed by this man--his empathy, his caring, his clear, articulate voice that spoke out so strongly for the oppressed and downtrodden, for the "desapracidos" of the Pinochet coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. Ariel and I immediately hit it off and began e-mailing each other. He sent me his books. I sent him my films. When Ariel said he was planning a trip back to Chile and Argentina in late 2006, we decided to make a film together, exploring his long journey of exile.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

PR: First, raising money is always hard--especially for a feature-length documentary about social and political issues. But fortunately we got support up front from Bravo! Arts Channel and Biography Channel in Canada, and our distributor, Jan Rofekamp of FilmsTransit, which enabled us to begin shooting, and BBC Storyville, ITVS and the Sundance Documentary Fund came on board while we were in post-production. We pitched this film at IDFA and Hot Docs, and that was enormously helpful.
Secondly, making a film about a writer is a challenge--their craft really is text, words--but fortunately Ariel is not only charming and with a unique energy that comes across on screen, but he is an energetic man much younger than his years.
Thirdly, in order to illustrate the memories and stories of the film, we needed to do exhaustive searches for material during the Allende period and the coup; we ended up using stills from 25 sources, many of them difficult and long.
Fourthly, post-production was an obstacle course; interweaving Ariel's life in North America with his life in Chile and broadening it for audiences in the way it works now was very difficult.
Finally, filming Ariel at the grave of his grandmother, a place he had never been before, was very difficult. Two months before filming I lost my wife, filmmaker and journalist Lindalee Tracey, to cancer. The whole process of people who survived making a film about people who died was unbelievably difficult. But that's the point: Truth-telling--telling the real story of the past, in art and in life--is what this movie is about.


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

PR: At the outset, Ariel felt it was important to go back to Chile and Argentina with a specific goal in mind. He was going in search of a photograph of himself and others at the time of the coup. As filming proceeded, this thread became less relevant than other new events and nuances that arose--for instance, the death of Pinochet while we were in Chile, an event and a street scene I will never forget. In filmmaking I find you have to have both a plan and an openness to anything new that arises.


IDA: As you've screened A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

PR: We had extraordinarily positive reaction to the film when we screened it as a work-in-progress at the Full Frame Documentary Festival in Durham, North Carolina, in April. One particularly unexpected and surprising reaction was of a woman who began crying as she spoke of her personal experience of internal "exile"--she has not been able to return to her home in New Orleans since the flood.
Chileans who have seen the film at private screenings have been very moved, touched and overwhelmed by the memories of torture and suffering brought by General Pinochet's coup of September 11, 1973.


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

PR: John Grierson, Barbara Kopple, Donald Brittain, Joan Churchill, Errol Morris, Fred Wiseman, DA Pennebaker.

A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman will be screening at The LANDMARK.

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