A documentary about Colonia Dignidad, the German fundamentalist evangelical cult based in a Chilean rural compound and led by subsequently convicted paedophile Paul Schäfer, seems to promise shock and horror at the uncovering of the many atrocities that happened there in the 60s and 70s. Directors Marianne Hougen-Moraga and Estephan Wagner manage instead to craft a contemplative and non-didactic meditation on human nature, trauma and denial.
It is a coincidence but I first learned of Colonia Dignidad when I watched an obscure film called Colonia (2015) on Netflix a few months ago, mainly because it was set in Chile, and my daughter had a new Chilean friend, and it starred Emma Watson, a family favourite.
It is a fictionalised story of a German woman (Watson) whose boyfriend (Daniel Brühl) is arrested by the newly installed Pinochet government and taken to Colonia Dignidad to be tortured and possibly killed. She follows him there and we see the fascistic cult built by Schäfer (Michael Nyqvist), the abuse of both children and adults and the organisation’s complicity in the disposal of those who supported the previous socialist government of Allende.
Songs of Repression takes us to the colony, now called Villa Bavaria, where only a handful of colonists remain. Most left when Schäfer was arrested and those that remain are an uncomfortable mixture of former founders and leaders, called Hierarchs, and those who grew up through the decades of abuse. Some have left but with no assets or experience of the world, live a hand to mouth existence. Those that stay get a roof over their heads and food, work in the fields or managing ever-growing tourism and are cared for when they get old. The price they pay is to stay silent about what happened, to forgive and forget.
The colony itself is still an oddity, awkwardly positioning itself as an authentic German village with yodelling and folk dances, hosting weddings and holiday makers whilst leading tourists on tours of its dark history. A cellar where children hid and were beaten is now a sauna, complete with a nature mural. A barn where political prisoners were tortured and murdered is closed off. Forensic teams are uncovering mass graves and trying to identify the thousands of people who disappeared under Pinochet’s military dictatorship.
This is the style of documentary that might be called observational. The camera hangs back, shifting focus. We see the chaotic, awkward moments before an interview. The camera pans away from a speaker and we watch the changing expressions on the face of another. We see the glory of an autumn morning and watch curtains billow and dust float in the air. Its effect is to slow down and observe, to watch and listen as the halting stories spill out.
What becomes apparent is that each person carries with them their own trauma, experience and understanding of what happened. Each tries to rationalise what they know is true and although many seem, on the surface to have moved on, the damage, anger and denial leaks out the longer the camera lingers. When you see that some believe Pinochet was good for Chile, others want the truth to be buried so their liability is diminished and others are still consumed with anger, it is no surprise that a rift has split the community apart.
The filmmakers don’t judge, they just let us observe the damage done to ordinary people.
Have you seen this film or Colonia? let me know your thoughts in the comments below.