By Gunter Silva
Translated by Anna Heath
It’s Saturday afternoon and I receive a call from a friend of mine. He’s a Peruvian who, despite living in London for more than a decade, still expects to meet up with me at only an hour’s notice. This man has been known to show up unannounced at people’s houses.
“In two hours there’ll be a film over near your place,” he says. “Would you like to come?”
“I’ll be there, Siveroni,” I say.
I have tons of work I’m supposed to be doing: a presentation, three essays, and a pile of books I should be starting. Siveroni knows I’m a fan of cinema and of the art of procrastination. So I grab my jacket and make my way to the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. The film is called Storm in the Andes.
Josefin Ekermann is a young woman who grew up in Sweden. Each time she asked her family to tell her about her Peruvian aunt Augusta La Torre, who died in 1988, she would always have to hear the same fairy tale: a portrait of an auntie as a liberator of the poor.
Now Josefin knows the truth, although she still has more questions than answers about the woman who, together with her husband Abimael Guzmán, founded the most violent insurgent movement in South America: Shining Path.
Wanting to find out more about her aunt’s life in Peru, Josefin went against the wishes of her parents and family, exiled in Sweden, by traveling to her and her family’s country in search of the story that had been kept from her, the story that hadn’t been told.
The film opens as Josefin shares some of her thoughts after visiting people and places she was hoping would point her toward the truth. These emotionally difficult meetings alternate with archive images of the brutal, bloody war initiated by Shining Path. She begins the film by saying, “I feel that I’m carrying everything my family has been trying to hide.” Now in Lima, Josefin meets Flor Gonzalez, a woman who lost her brother Claudio during the terror campaign, and still doesn’t know exactly what happened to him. Flor sees Josefin only as the heir of that ideology of terror.
At the end of the screening, Josefin and director Mikael Wiström come out onto the stage. They both respond to the questions of a perplexed public who don’t understand how the violence started. It’s six o’clock in the evening and London seems changed. I order a Coke at the cinema bar, with the images from Tarata Street repeating in my head. The city of Lima under fire, a brilliant red at dusk. People running all in one direction, and panic on the day Shining Path arrived in the capital.
Suddenly Mikael comes up and begins to talk to us. “It’s a nice change to talk to a fellow countryman,” he says. Although you could say he has all the look of a Viking, with a red face, white teeth, and blond hair, he considers himself as Peruvian as ceviche. He tells us that close to his hotel he’s found a Peruvian restaurant, Tito’s. That discovery appears to be the source of his great ease and contentment, and he displays an insatiable curiosity toward everything in life. After a while, the festival people call him over to watch the two other films yet to be screened. He warmly takes his leave.
On Monday, March 23, a journalist friend calls me. “This isn’t going to work, I should be interviewing the makers of Storm in the Andes on the radio at the Barbican at five, but I’m getting on my plane in a few minutes. Can you do it for me?” he says.
I have tons of work I should be doing—a presentation, three essays, and a pile of books I should be reading—but I end up accepting.
In the Barbican, Mikael recognizes me and makes his way over with Josefin. “You’re everywhere,” he tells me. I tell him the truth, that I’m the substitute. They both laugh and there’s sincerity in their smiles. In a strange sort of way, the pair of them reminds me of a father and daughter. Josefin, diminutive, has a very relaxed air about her, a woman willing to do what is right without heeding the pressure to do otherwise, as anybody who has seen the film will know.
“They’ve given me ten minutes,” I tell her.
“All the time you need,” she says.
I take out my little digital recorder, and, noticing how cheap it is, Mikael takes pains to avoid any awkwardness between us. “I know these machines. Let’s go to that corner where it’s less noisy,” he says.
How has the film been received in Lima and in London?
Lots of people, many people, have seen it in Lima, and in Peru. It was an enormous surprise to me that the reception has been so positive. It’s been supported unconditionally. Above all, nobody has seen it as an apologia for Shining Path.
In London, there’s been a desire to intellectualize it. I imagine they think of Peru as a very remote place.
How does this film contribute to the process of memory and reconciliation in Peru?
It’s difficult to answer that question, because it’s a process that’s independent to the film. But I think it’s created a dialogue. I’ve spoken to terrorists and to servicemen, and both sides have thanked us for the film. They think that it opens an honest debate, one that does more than just look at the situation in black and white.
Let me try to explain. We first presented the film in small communities and, despite the fact that there were people in the audience from both sides, the reception was perfectly civilized, and I think that as the audience left the room, each side tried to understand the other.
I think the film also documents a personal journey for Josefin, a kind of bildungsroman.
It might. In a documentary, you have hopes and expectations. When Josefin contacted me, I was already filming with Flor in Lima. I knew that something interesting would come out of all this. I was sure that the process would be a path of growth and improvement, both for Josefin and for Flor.
Is putting together Josefin and Flor like putting the Capulets and Montagues at the same table?
The meeting with Flor wasn’t easy. There were lots of obstacles, and there were moments when we thought we’d have to stop filming. Although they are both women and both young, they were like oil and water.
The film mentioned a possible conspiracy against Augusta La Torre.
I don’t know very much. The only people who know what really happened are going to take that secret to the grave. I’m talking about Abimael Guzmán and Elena Iparraguirre. Personally, I think the possibility Carlos Tapia tells us about in the film is the most probable, that Augusta was ill, but I can’t rule out a planned, purposeful, cold-blooded murder either.
What’s the role of the arts when it comes to such violent true stories?
Art can find a dialogue with the public, and add a reflection on, and analysis of, what really happened. It also acts as a catalyst.
What is Shining Path: a guerrilla force, an armed group, a terrorist group?
I think that it’s a terrorist movement, based on erroneous political ideas. They represent an ideology of terror. It doesn’t incorporate understanding of the Peruvian reality, and that is how Samuel, a campesino, interprets it in the film.
They took advantage of a profound resentment for their own purposes. They liberated dark and destructive forces that resulted in a bloodbath for the country.
Why do you classify them in the film as “guerrilla” and “armed group”?
I do that so that anyone watching the film will begin to see the situation as it was, and to come to his or her own conclusions.
In the last couple of years, people have been talking about that time a lot, and there have been lots of films and novels made and written about it. Has this already had its moment, as a topic?
I think that there hasn’t even been a real discussion about it. It’s only just starting. It takes decades for an open discussion about it to become possible, and to be able to take in everything that happened. I’m very concerned that Alan García will come back into power, the discussion will be closed, and lots of different cases will be impeded. El Frontón, the prison massacre in the film, is only one of those.
I look at my watch and realize we’ve spoken for twenty minutes. The coordinator comes and tells me there are other journalists waiting. Mikael leaves me with Josefin. She tells me that her family in Sweden, with the exception of her parents, will no longer speak to her, even publishing a statement in Caretas in 2012 in which they openly opposed the film. Her English is totally fluent: in fact, she’s just finished her degree at the University of Leeds. “I wanted to go to Australia when I finished my degree, but I’ve changed my mind. Now I want to help in Peru. I don’t know what form that will take, but it could be by working for an NGO,” she says.
Speaking to her, it occurs to me that she, too, has been the victim of that merciless group that terrorized my country for twelve years. At the end of the film, Flor Gonzalez said that the truth had been liberating. I wonder what both Flor and Josefin will go on to accomplish with this liberation behind them, and I wonder what the truth itself will achieve, and where it will take us.
Anna Heath was born in the UK in 1984 and is an independent translator into English from Spanish. She has translated numerous short stories and poems, including work by Fernando Ampuero and Luisa Fernanda Lindo. She holds a BA in English literature, an MA in translation, and an MA in comparative literature with a focus on Asia and Africa.
Published Oct 7, 2015 Copyright 2015 Gunter Silva