Chronicle of a Student’s Death: Winning Film at Chile’s FIDOCS Documentary Festival Looks at 2011 Police Killing

By 02 July, 2014

First, the disclaimer. I have not seen the film I write about here, nor had I even heard of it until a few days ago. But I was living in Chile at the time of the event that defines its narrative, observationally immersed in the seething discontent enveloping the country when the student was killed. I heard his name chanted at political rallies and saw the anger in the faces of demonstrators as they fought running street battles with police.

The teenager’s death occurred in the wider context of the student protest movement for free education that shut down the national education system amid mass public support. The protests made global headlines and exemplified the power of popular unity, unleashing one of the largest social revolts in Chilean history. But the movement was conducted in a climate of authoritarian repression that saw heavy police responses to legitimate forms of public protest. Back then, I wrote this article for The Comment Factory on what was taking place in Chile.

Chile’s largest documentary festival, the Santiago Festival of International Documentary, or FIDOCS, has now awarded its top prize to a film that examines the case of Manuel Gutierrez, the 16-year old student killed by police at the height of the national protests.

On the nights of 23 and 24 August 2011, Santiago was hit by a wave of widespread social unrest, as Chile staged a two-day national strike, the first of its kind since the Pinochet dictatorship. The strike was rooted in public anger at the government’s handling of the ongoing protests, in which student occupations of schools and universities across Chile had brought the public school system to a halt. Immense demonstrations were a weekly event in Santiago and other cities, as Chilean youth demanded universal free education and an end to the profit-making private universities which proliferated under military rule and which continue to prosper in the post-dictatorship.

The suburb of Macul, located near the foot of the Andean cordillera which towers over the capital, was just one of many districts where demonstrators came into contact with armed carabineros (Chile’s militarised police force). Manuel Gutierrez, a local high school student, was observing the street protests with his brother Gerson and a friend when a series of shots rang out, fatally wounding the 16-year old. Gerson Gutierrez told the press that “we were walking to the footbridge when I heard three shots, and my brother, who was to my left, fell to the ground, where he lost consciousness and then lost his life.”

The authorities’ initial reaction to the shooting was to close ranks. General Sergio Gajardo of the Carabineros de Chile denied any link between the police and Gutierrez’s death. The Sub-Secretary of the Interior, Rodrigo Ubilla, encouraged people to avoid speculating on events. Another political representative, Alberto Cardemil, an ex-spokesman for General Pinochet and a cabinet member during the dictatorship, was more forthright, saying “between those causing violence and the carabineros, I believe the carabineros.”

Yet, just four days after the shooting, the Carabineros de Chile admitted that an officer, identified as Miguel Millacura, had indeed let off a series of shots in the area. Tests found that the bullets which killed Manuel came from Millacura’s weapon. The security forces’ initial denial of any culpability in the teenager’s death, in spite of the eyewitness accounts of Gerson Gutierrez, provoked public anger and was heavily criticised by Lorena Fríes, the director of the National Institute for Human Rights, who said “it is not acceptable for Carabineros to flatly say that ‘we are not going to investigate because it has nothing to do with us’… this requires the maximum degree of transparency because, if not, we will see an escalation in distrust between citizens and Carabineros.” In May 2014, Miguel Millacura was found legally responsible for Manuel’s death and received three years’ probation, a sentence widely derided as overly-lenient.

Now that closure has been brought to the legal proceedings, if not to the pain felt by the Gutierrez family, a new film from Chilean directors José Luis Sepulveda and Carolina Adriazola revisits the episode. Crónica de un Comité (Chronicle of a Committee) centres on a humanitarian-political committee set up in the wake of Manuel’s killing as a means of campaigning for justice. The film won the prize for Best Chilean Documentary at this year’s FIDOCS, a festival I have covered since 2011 but which this year I was unable to attend.

The festival programme features this synopsis of Crónica de un Comité: ‘This chaotic following of a humanitarian-political committee that came together after the death of Manuel Gutiérrez – a 16-year-old youth that died from a stray police bullet, next to Gerson, his handicapped brother, during a night of protests – reflects the lack of direction in a group that does not know what it is or what it is searching for, beyond and intangible need for justice. Just like the family allows themselves to be seduced by the visit of a couple of Evangelical police chaplains, the committee turns Manuel into a symbolic martyr for the struggles of the students and the Mapuche, and Gerson starts to appreciate his “fame.” Here is a tangle of disturbing elements shown without judgment or condescension.’

The FIDOCS jury, which included Chilean filmmaker Ignacio Aguero, who won last year’s prize for El Otro Día, selected the film due to ‘its approach strategy, which illuminates the internal conflicts of a group of people, and produces an interesting metaphor for Chile.’ The film was made with the consent and participation of the Gutierrez family, with sections even being filmed by Gerson. Co-directors Sepulveda and Adriazola had previously made the films El Pejesapo and Mitómana, although Crónica de un Comité is their first documentary.

While recognised for its technical adroitness as much as its content, Crónica de un Comité is another example of independent Chilean film serving as a means of addressing themes of socio-political relevance. It is perhaps through cultural forms that audiences are most able to forge an understanding of events that are often manipulated in their portrayal in the mainstream media. Judging from the post-FIDOCS comments (here’s an extensive overview in Spanish from the excellent Chilean film blog El Agente), this is one to keep an eye on.

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