Picture this: a country living in fear after a series of brutal terrorist attacks and a president manipulating that fear to strip citizens of their democratic freedoms. Sound familiar? That is because Pamela Yates wants it to. Yates is the mind behind “State of Fear,” a documentary dealing with the 20-year war between the Peruvian government and the Shining Path terrorist group.
The film features interviews with everyone, from a former Shining Path member who fondly recounts her devotion to Maoist leader Abimael Guzman to a woman who was abducted, raped and tortured by the Peruvian military during former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori’s war on Guzman and his terrorist activities. Some of the film’s most evocative subjects include an upper-class woman who sat on Fujimori’s congressional panel and tearfully begs forgiveness from her fellow Peruvians for her ignorance, and a man whose experiences as a child soldier in Shining Path cost him his youth and his older brother.
Much of the film’s power comes from its refusal to take a side – something it does throughout the movie. The soldiers’ stories are interspersed with the experiences of civilians and similarly, the tales of the terrorists are given just as much weight as those of the terrorized. “State of Fear” ultimately condemns both sides for their brutal behavior, instead simply honoring the people of Peru and the human rights workers who tried their best to protect those people from the terrorists and Fujimori alike.
Throughout “State of Fear,” archival footage and highly stylized re-enactments combine with interviews, to create a dramatic backdrop for the candid narratives of the interview subjects. The film moves slowly at times, feeling more like a history lesson than anything else. But just as the movie’s slow pace and lecture-like narration starts to wear thin, Yates cuts to the faces of the Peruvian people and the landscape of the Peruvian countryside, painting a clear picture of the human costs of terrorism and the equally high price of a democracy hijacked by the man elected to protect it.
Starting and ending with footage from modern-day riots in Peru, the film serves as a reminder that even though Peru’s official war on terrorism ended with Fujimori’s removal from office in 2000, Peru’s national security is still far from restored. Through interviews and narration, the film stresses that class divides, economic inequality and years of conflict are responsible for Shining Path’s rise to power and Fujimori’s subsequent climb to power.
“State of Fear” is a clear condemnation of terrorism, but it also indicts the social conditions responsible for fostering that terrorist sentiment. The film is unabashed about its political agenda, making a clear case against unfettered government power and drawing obvious parallels between the problems in Peru and the similar situation in post-9/11 America. Ultimately, “State of Fear” is a potent combination of politics and history, with a dash of dire warning thrown in, making for a powerful documentary with an especially meaningful and timely kick.