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Raindance Film Festival’s Damn Kids tells the story of Chile’s desaparecidos

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Raindance Film Festival’s Damn Kids (Cabros de mierda) tells the story of Gladys, a secret member of a group of revolutionary dissidents, and her family in a working class neighbourhood in Santiago, Chile, during Augusto Pinochet’s right-wing dictatorship. A North-American missionary, Samuel, comes to live with Gladys, and soon discovers the brutality of Pinochet’s military dictatorship and the struggle of the Chilean people to recover democracy. BristoLatino’s editor-in-chief Helen Brown reports.


Damn Kids is told from the perspective of Samuel (Daniel Contesse), a wide-eyed twenty-three year old North American missionary who lives with Gladys and hands out pamphlets door to door to unreceptive Chileans. His mission to spread the word of God is derailed first when he loses his sexual naiveté to the sly and sensual Gladys (Nathalia Aragonese), then when he loses his political innocence through discovering the terrifying daily reality of Chileans living in fear of kidnapping and murder. Samuel is roped into painting pro-democracy murals at nighttime, the innocuous rebellion of the revolutionary group. When the military are led to Gladys’s house by a trail of paint, the humour and furtive sense of community of the beginning of the film is engulfed by tragedy and brutality, as cruel interrogations lead to the death or disappearance of Gladys and the majority of her loved ones.

The director, writer and executive producer, Gonzalo Justiniano, left Chile at the beginning of  Pinochet’s dictatorship and settled in Paris until 1983, when he returned to film a documentary with a French company. The naiveté of Samuel’s character, Justiniano explains, is an exaggerated version of his own innocence reentering Chile after having lived in Europe, and the other characters are a mixture of people he knew or real figures he read about. Damn Kids also includes some of Justiniano’s own vintage footage, clips of street protests that he took without the permission of the dictatorship which are now an important historical record of the efforts of revolutionary groups who demanded justice and democracy.


                     Gladys flirting with Samuel, the North American missionary who lives in her house


In the Q&A with Gonzalo Justiniano, he explained how he wanted to highlight how the success of Pinochet’s dictatorship was due to the strong influence of the military and the support of the United States. In Damn Kids, a local man boasts of his recent training at the School of the Americas, a U.S military base in the Panama Canal Zone that trained the militaries of Latin American countries such as Chile to control and torture insurgents. The School of the Americas was designed as a means of attacking the Communist threat in Latin America, although in practice what the Latin American militaries labelled as communism was any kind of behaviour that went against the status quo. Throughout the film, men who arrive as aggressive soldiers to Gladys’s household, or torture Gladys’s friends, are identified as friends of cousins, or the sons of another friendly face within the community showing how the violence of the dictatorship was often perpetrated by locals in the community. Exemplifying the continuous clash of morals between community and state-sponsored control, in Damn Kids a Chilean dissident appeals to his torturer, warning him that when the dictatorship is over, Pinochet will wash his hands of this violence, but nobody in the community will forget.

Damn Kids continuously emphasises the importance of testimony and memory. Justiniano has made two other films that explore this era of Chilean politics, Hijos de la guerra fría (1986), and Amnesia (1994). Amnesia was released during the Transition period in Chile, following the plebiscite that called in a return to democracy and a rewriting of the Chilean constitution. However, Pinochet insisted that he remain Commander in Chief of the army. Amnesia showed the assassination of political opponents by Pinochet’s government, and the film was rejected by the transition government at the time. In an interview with El Mostrador, Justiniano even recalls being called by a high up civil servant who asked him not to screen the film because showing military intervention in civic life would not promote the values of unity and hopefulness needed at the time. This unwillingness to face the facts of history continues today. Justiniano is criticised for dwelling on the past and picking at the scab of 1980s Chile. A Chilean newspaper labelled Hijos de cabra as “pornography,” and he is facing difficulty in his attempts to air the film on Chilean television. Due to the nonviolent nature of the transition from dictatorship to democracy, many of those who enjoyed power and success under Pinochet continue to hold this privilege, as Justiniano explains: “the mass media are controlled by the same people as under Pinochet.”

In Damn Kids, Justiniano uses the the youngest character to assert the interventionist relationship the United States had with Chile during this period. Gladys’s eight-year old nephew, Vladi (Elías Collado), with his oversized glasses and inquisitive stare, always pops up around the house unexpectedly, delivering lines of youthful honesty. He repeats many times throughout the film: “my grandfather always said that Nixon killed Allende.” In 1970, perturbed by Salvador Allende’s democratic socialist government in Chile, Nixon authorised a costly CIA initiative to find sympathetic military leaders in Chile and encourage them to carry out the coup that founded Pinochet’s seventeen-year dictatorship. However, when Vladi repeats this truthful refrain, he is criticised by his fellow characters for always dwelling on the past. Justiniano defends his choice to continue to represent this era of Chile, believing that each time he treats the subject he unlocks a different aspect of the same reality. The dominant narrative in Chile is to look to the future to advance the country, but Justiniano feels that not enough has been done to confront the atrocities of the past.


                                                             Vladi, Gladys’s eight-year old nephew


Justiniano manages to communicate these complex political messages through a film that focuses exclusively on everyday life. Through this focus, he emphasises the important role women played in the revolutionary force. Gladys is seen organising protests, painting covert murals and hiding illicit packages and people in her home. Meanwhile, she is also feeding her family, mothering her sister’s child, and housing a missionary. However, she is not a stoic female martyr; there are moments in the film where her emotions engulf her, and she tearfully washes dishes. Her escapism is getting drunk, dancing and seducing Samuel, attempting to live as freely and as joyfully as she can under an oppressive system. Gladys illustrates how caring, empathetic and complex characters who struggled for integrity and freedom were faced with disrespect and inhumanity.

*Spoiler alert*

The film ends with Gladys getting kidnapped and killed by the military, her body thrown from a helicopter into the sea. Many bodies of desaparecidos (disappeared people) were also disposed of in this way. This horrific image is a visual testimony to the secretive cruelty of Pinochet’s military dictatorship. The final scene shows Samuel in contemporary Chile at the Memory Museum in Santiago, gazing at a picture of Gladys on a crowded wall of people whose bodies were also never found, showing how Gladys’s story is one of many tragedies the Chilean people suffered.

Photo credits: Zoom back, Galaxia up