Jun 11 of 2008
Growing international concern about a Chilean filmmaker’s Arrest.
By Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Jun 11 (IPS) - There is growing international alarm over the arrest of Chilean filmmaker Elena Varela, who was taken into custody by police a month ago while working on an investigative documentary on the conflicts between lumber companies and the Mapuche indigenous people in southern Chile.

The international organisations that have expressed concern over the case include Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders.

The Platform for Freedom of Expression and Creativity, a group that emerged in support of Varela, is demanding a fair trial and respect for the presumption of innocence, as well as the return of all of the materials that were seized from her and a ban on using them in investigations and trials of indigenous activists, Francisco Gedda, one of the group’s spokespersons, told IPS.

Gedda, a documentary filmmaker and a professor at the University of Chile, was one of dozens of demonstrators -- including journalists, filmmakers, academics and intellectuals -- who protested Varela’s arrest outside the Palace of Justice in downtown Santiago Tuesday, holding up banners and signs, and with their mouths covered to symbolise censorship.

Varela was arrested May 7 at her home near the city of Villarrica in the southern region of Araucanía, 670 km south of Santiago, on charges of "illicit association with the intent to commit a crime". She was taken to the prison of Rancagua in the region of O'Higgins, 85 km south of the capital.

The filmmaker, musician and cultural promoter is well-known in the world of arts for her work with children and young people, and with different social movements. She is the founder of the Escuela de Todas Las Artes art school, the Panguipulli Children’s Symphonic Orchestra, and the Ojo Film production company.

When she was arrested, abundant material was seized from her home, including tapes, interviews, scripts, diaries, books, research notes, invoices and receipts, cameras, sound equipment, cell-phones and video footage shot for her documentary "Newen Mapu Che" (Strength of the People of the Heart), on the struggles and demands of the Mapuche people, the main indigenous group in Chile.

Varela and four other people were arrested and accused of participating in two robberies as part of a cell of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), an insurgent group that was created in 1965 and virtually destroyed by the 1973-1990 military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, although there are now attempts to revive it as a political organisation.

The first robbery was committed in 2004 at a bank in Loncoche, in Araucanía, and the second was committed in 2005, in a public administration office in Machalí, O'Higgins. Four people were killed in the second incident.

According to prosecutor Servando Pérez, the MIR cell to which Varela allegedly belonged carried out the robberies to seize funds to revive the movement, Julio Barría, a lawyer who was defending the filmmaker until Jun. 6, told IPS.

Barría is now representing another of the defendants, Flor Domínguez.

Varela is accused of being the "intellectual author" of the two robberies and of hiding the "material authors." She has declared herself innocent, as have the other four people who were arrested.

All five are to be held in preventive detention until the trial starts in five months.

Barría said the filmmaker was implicated because in 2007 she produced the documentary "Los Sueños del Comandante", about young revolutionaries who were active in the 1960s and 1970s, in which she interviewed former members of the MIR.

But "her relationship with them is merely tangential," said her former defence attorney.

The public prosecutor’s office also believes that Varela was in a relationship with one of the men involved in the holdups, who was apparently known as Gabriel.

Varela says she lived with a goldsmith by that name, who died in 2006, and who never belonged to the MIR. "This is a big mix-up," said Barría.

One of the most questioned aspects of the case was the confiscation of the footage shot for the "Newen Mapu Che" documentary, which has nothing to do with the investigation of the robberies and which has even received financing from the state.

The film, which has not yet been completed, focuses on the long-standing protests and demands by the Mapuche people, who lost a large part of their land in southern Chile to the state in the late 19th century -- land that later ended up in private hands.

After Chile’s return to democracy in 1990, several Mapuche communities began to mobilise in demand of their territorial, political and cultural rights, rebelling against the welfare-style policies of the governments of the centre-left Concertación (Coalition) for Democracy and the increasing number of lumber companies and infrastructure projects on land that they claim as their own.

As trials against Mapuche activists mushroomed, and a controversial counter-terrorism law dating back to the Pinochet era was invoked in the trials of Mapuche Indians accused of occupying private land, stealing livestock, arson and staging attacks on private property, rights activists and observers have complained that the Concertación governments have "criminalised Mapuche protests."

In its annual human rights report 2007, Amnesty International reported police brutality against Mapuche communities.

The members of the Platform for Freedom of Expression and Creativity believe there is a link between Varela’s arrest and her work with the Mapuche people.

One of the demands set forth in a public statement issued by the Platform is that the documentaries "Los Sueños del Comandante" and "Newen Mapu Che" must not be used in police investigations or trials against the filmmaker’s sources, who should be protected by confidentiality practices.

Along with international rights groups, the Chilean associations of documentary filmmakers and journalists, as well as filmmakers from Argentina and Ecuador, have spoken out on Varela’s case.

"Amnesty International Chile has taken urgent action on behalf of Elena Varela, issuing a call to hundreds of thousands of activists around the world to take an interest in the case," Sergio Laurenti, executive director of that office, told IPS before participating in Tuesday’s protest.

In a public statement, Amnesty says it is worried that "Newen Mapu Che" "could be used by the security forces to intimidate and harass Mapuche activists and other people who took part in interviews taped for the documentary."

In an open letter to President Michelle Bachelet dated Jun. 6, Reporters Without Borders says "It is not our job to try to influence the way this case is handled, but we are disturbed by certain aspects of the case, starting with the confiscation of material used or recorded by Varela in the course of preparing her documentary film.

"Why was the seizure of this material considered necessary in an investigation into events that had nothing to do with her documentary? It is also legitimate to ask how someone who was accused of such crimes and who was presumably being sought by the police could (be) receiving government funding for a film."

Furthermore, Reporters Without Borders points out "that other journalists and filmmakers have got into trouble when trying to cover the sensitive subject of the situation of the Mapuches." The open letter notes that in the last few months, four foreign filmmakers, two from France and two from Italy, were arrested while shooting footage on the Mapuche people.

"We are preparing an appeal for legal protection (on behalf of Varela) and we will continue pressing, from within and outside of Chile, for something that we consider an essential right: if journalists and documentary filmmakers cannot promise their sources confidentiality, that spells the end of documentaries, and of freedom of expression and creativity," Gedda told IPS.

Chile’s press law does not include a confidentiality guarantee for sources interviewed by documentary-makers, because that genre of filmmaking was in its infancy in this country when the law was passed.

Sources close to Varela told IPS that retired Judge Juan Guzmán, director of the Central University’s Human Rights Centre, has been asked to act as the filmmaker’s defence lawyer, something that may be announced within the next few days. Guzmán is internationally renowned as the first judge to prosecute former dictator Pinochet. (END/2008)