'The Crosses' ('Las Cruces'): Film Review

FID Marseille
A sober investigation of a massacre.

Chilean filmmakers Carlos Vasquez Mendez and Teresa Arredondo Lugon unearth the story of a state-sponsored killing in this FIDMarseille documentary.

Revisiting one of the many massacres committed by Pinochet’s regime when it brutally took power in Chile in September of 1973, The Crosses (Las Cruces) is a stark and chilling reflection on a crime that went unreported for several decades and remains unpunished to this day. Rather than using footage from the era or filming interviews with the culprits, directors Carlos Vasquez Mendez and Teresa Arredondo Lugon chose to shoot the past as the present, capturing the landscape in and around the city of Laja where the murders took place, while employing actors to read the testimony of several Chilean carabineros who admitted to the killings a number of years later.

The technique brings to mind the work of Claude Lanzmann (Shoah), who almost never used archive material and filmed the concentration camps as they existed in the 1970s, revealing the desolation of a place where death was still hanging in the air. In a similar fashion, The Crosses, which was shot on 16mm film in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, soberly reveals a part of Chile where the aftereffects of Pinochet’s reign seem to be etched into the very land — or else symbolized by the wooden crosses planted throughout the region. After premiering at the FIDMarseille festival, where it received a special mention from the jury, the film should continue touring the fest circuit, although it’s minimalist aesthetic may make it a tough sell for wide distribution.

Using evidence that includes police reports, sworn testimonies and photos of gravesites, which they intercut with footage of the area as it exists today, the filmmakers recount the basic facts of the incident: On September 13, 1973, just two days after Augusto Pinochet took power in a U.S.-backed coup d’etat, 19 workers at the CMPC paper plant in Laja were rounded up while on the job, detained for several days and then summarily executed by a squad of carabineros. Their bodies were buried in the forest and discovered later by a local farmer, who reported it to the authorities. But a judge decided not to investigate the crimes, while a latter court ultimately dismissed them. It was only in 2010 that the case was reopened again.

Like many victims of the Pinochet dictatorship — the number of deaths between 1973 and 1990, when Pinochet finally stepped down, is estimated between 3,000 and 15,000, while nearly 40,000 people were detained and tortured — the workers at CMPC had left-leaning affiliations and were deemed enemies of the state by the military junta. Since they had access to powerful chemicals at the factory where they were employed, the army decided to get rid of them as fast as possible, carting them out to the woods, digging their graves and sentencing them to death by firing squad.

A handful of carbineros who carried out the massacre —  and whose testimony is read in the movie by a cast of actors — seem to regret their crimes, explaining how they were young at the time and only following orders. One haunting account details how the guards were given plenty of alcohol to drink throughout the night, while never fully told what was going on until it was too late. The prisoners, meanwhile, were shown no mercy, their hands bound behind their backs as they were forced to kneel down in the dirt and await the order to fire.

With its solemn tone and unflinching look at a state-sponsored massacre, The Crosses recalls both Lanzmann’s oeuvre and the work of Rithy Panh (S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine) and Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing), where the cinema is used as both a tool for reflection and a means to uncover long-buried truths. Although less powerful than those other films, this austere if effective debut by Vasquez Mendez and Arredondo Lugon adds necessary elements to the historical record and deserves further exposure both abroad, and, even more so, in Chile itself.  

Production companies: Laguna Negra, DeReojo Comunicaciones
Directors, screenwriters: Carlos Vasquez Mendez, Teresa Arredondo Lugon
Producers: Teresa Arredondo Lugon, Patricio Munoz
Director of photography: Carlos Vasquez Mendez
Editors: Martin Sappia, Carlos Vasquez Mendez

In Spanish
73 minutes