The Last Shot
The mobs were ferocious and loud. They were beating policemen, looting government buildings, and smashing the cameras of local media. I feared that they would turn on us. We were shooting the last scene of State of Fear, which documents the legacy of Peru’s war on terror, but to the rioters we were photographing their incriminating deeds. In the midst of tear gas and stones hurled from slingshots, this riot scene, which turned out to be the opening sequence of our film, became emblematic of a traumatized citizenry who no longer believed in the rule of law.
I had been shooting in Peru for two years before we arrived at the riots in Ayacucho, a provincial capital in the high Andes of Peru. Ayacucho is the birthplace of the Shining Path, a Maoist insurgency whose violent acts triggered an epic 20-year war on terror by the Peruvian state that ended in 2000 with the collapse of President Alberto Fujimori’s autocratic regime. Producer Paco de Onís and I, along with our Peruvian crew, had come to this violence-plagued city in 2004 to film a look back at the terrible years that brought Peruvian democracy to its knees.
I always wish that the last day of shooting could be the first. I wish that at the start of principal photography I could possess all the accumulated knowledge, wisdom, camaraderie, problem-solving techniques, and collaborations developed over the course of making a film. But that’s never the case. State of Fear was a three-year journey of discovery that began in 2001 when the Peruvian State announced it was convening a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and would be the first Latin American country to hold public hearings. For the first time in the country’s history, the victims, rather than the perpetrators, would get to write history. The Truth Commission was also going to exhaustively examine what had actually happened during the internal war—much of which was unknown due to the clandestine nature of Shining Path, and the secrecy and corruption that enveloped the state’s response.
The Truth Commissioners chose to entrust us with all the ins and outs of their research, their writings, the ways they came to their conclusions because we were a U.S./Peruvian co-production. Paco and I were the only Americans, and we had three well-known Peruvians on our team: Ana Caridad Sánchez, the co-producer, Juan Durán, the cinematographer, and Chicho Durant, the consulting producer. The commissioners introduced us to witnesses and shared the extensive collection of archival videotapes and photographs that their staff had compiled to visually document the war. They seemed to understand that our film would allow their work to live on long after their final report was delivered. They knew that those 5,000 pages were a valuable record of Peru’s collective memory, but that few people would actually read them all and that State of Fear would be a condensed version of their findings framed in an emotionally compelling narrative.
Finding the Story
Engaging American audiences in foreign subjects is a challenge, and throughout this process, I was concerned about how this epic Peruvian story would interest Americans. Why would they care? What could they learn for their own lives? How do we make history compelling in a nonfiction narrative?
It was in the intense atmosphere of the Truth Commission’s public hearings that Paco and I discovered the hook: There were startling parallels between Peru’s war and the unfolding U.S. global war on terror. Both involved the use of a conventional military response to an insurgency, the undermining of democratic institutions in the name of fighting terrorism, government’s use of fear to justify authoritarian measures and expanded powers, and the manipulation of media to influence public opinion. We decided that State of Fear could be a cautionary tale for U.S. and international audiences as well as a revelation for Peruvians who only know part of their own story.
As Paco and I started filming, we were in constant discussions with Peter Kinoy—the film’s editor and my filmmaking partner for 25 years—about how to frame the footage in a universal context. Together we developed an approach to the characters that went against conventional wisdom: focus on many characters instead of a few and use a cinematic style that juxtaposes the incredible visual beauty of the country against one of the most violent chapters of its history (The war is second only to the Spanish Conquest). I believe that one of the most magnificent cinematic landscapes is the geography of the human face. Peru, with its diverse coastal, Andean, and jungle populations, is no exception. I had a 12- by 9-foot portable, spandex green screen manufactured, and everywhere we went we set it up and filmed portraits of Peruvians so I could marry these unusual faces with their searing looks to other images in the film.