SANTIAGO, Chile — They had been some of the most powerful men in Chile. But with their president dead and their country under military siege, they found themselves confined to a concentration camp on a remote island called Dawson in the Strait of Magellan.
The plight of these nearly 40 deposed government officials is the subject of the movie “Dawson, Island 10,” which packed Chilean theaters this September. It is a tale of broken dreams, brutality and survival under the most extreme climatic, political and human conditions.
But it is also the true story of top leaders of the socialist government of Salvador Allende who were held captive for eight months, and one that has caught younger generations by surprise.
“I didn’t know anything about this. I came to see the movie because I’m studying film and was curious. I watched it as a fiction movie, even though now I know it actually happened, and the people and places in the movie really existed,” said 21-year-old Eddy Odgers.
The movie — a full-length feature film, not a documentary — has shown young and old a sliver of the atrocities that took place under military rule in Chile, a story they may not necessarily read in books or learn about in school.
But the movie sometimes consciously sacrifices accuracy to dramatic license, offering viewers a trade-off: exposure to this period of history at the expense of the historical record.
The movie is based on a book written in 1987 by Sergio Bitar, minister of mining under Allende and currently minister of public works. His book, “Island 10,” is a testimonial on how, days after the coup, the military imprisoned dozens of government ministers, party officials, university deans, doctors and members of Congress on Dawson Island. The prisoners were first housed in barracks at the naval base, and later in a full-fledged concentration camp.
Why make a movie on Dawson? “I heard their stories, I read the book and I went to the island with a group of survivors. I was moved by the way they held on to life, how they lived there, what they felt. I saw their dreams and utopias disappear,” movie director Miguel Littin said.
Devastated by the violent end to their three-year socialist experience in government and the death of their president, the government officials were shipped to Dawson on Sept. 16, 1973, with their spring clothing on and, if they were lucky, a few personal belongings. The first task was to dehumanize them, replacing their names with the name of one of the barracks and a number. Bitar was “Island 10,” I-10.
The military junta concealed the fate of the country’s ousted leaders. “Back then, we had only a vague idea of Dawson. We didn’t know the details, what the prisoners were going through,” said one moviegoer, Enrique Peralta, who was 20 at the time.
One press report published in October 1973 described the camp: “This is not Siberia nor a concentration camp. There is abundant wood, and for food, they have exquisite seafood they can go and pick up from the coast.”
In fact, the prisoners were crammed into a barracks, sleeping on run-down bunkbeds with nothing but a blanket. Distinguished government ministers had no bathroom or lavatories; they had to wash and toilet in a freezing stream. Days after arrival, the poorly fed prisoners began day-long forced labor under rain, wind and snow. About 400 political prisoners from the nearby city of Punta Arenas were also held there, but not allowed to have contact with the deposed officials.
Unconfirmed accounts from prisoners say that the former Nazi Walter Rauff — the man who invented the gas vans that killed nearly 100,000 people during World War II and was then living in Punta Arenas — helped the Chilean military design the new camp based on a Nazi blueprint. The movie asserts this as fact.
The movie often plays out the contradiction between the human instincts of the soldiers and the way they were expected to treat the prisoners. In one scene, soldiers take the prisoners to a warehouse where they stored food, telling them to fill their pockets with walnuts and fruit.
Bitar tells in his book of how one night, a group of young soldiers crept into their barracks and went from bed to bed asking the prisoners for their autographs. They wanted their parents to know they had been the guards of important people.
Due to international pressure — including the efforts of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, which are mentioned in the film — the "VIP" prisoners were transferred from Dawson to other detention camps in May 1974. Most spent many months imprisoned before being expelled from the country. None were ever tried in court.
The Chilean-Brazilian-Venezuelan co-production was filmed on Dawson Island in September and October of last year, under weather conditions similar to those the real prisoners endured, including a snow storm.
It was released Sept. 10, one day before the coup anniversary, to average reviews. Much of the criticism pointed to its lack of historical context and the fiction weaved into the real events.
Miguel Lawner, a former Dawson prisoner, had serious differences with Littin regarding the script. He doesn’t like how the director invented people and situations that never existed, distorted the role of some and ignored others, or the way in which Littin recreated the death of Allende in the presidential palace as a murder, and not as the suicide that has since then been corroborated.
“The movie is full of situations that aren’t like they actually happened," Lawner said. "I went to see the movie very skeptical, but since then, I have gotten many calls, especially from young people, impacted by the movie, saying they had no idea all of that had happened. In that sense, I guess Littin achieved his objective, in spite of the liberties he took.”
Translation of the trailer:
I’m asking you your new name!
“The men of Dawson. Their courage changed their lives”
This is Dawson island.
“Their struggle changed history”
It’s going to be impossible to control so many prisoners.
The solution would be to execute them once and for all.
At this time, you should consider yourselves prisoners of war, as ex ministers or leaders of the government of Mr. Salvador Allende.
I’m Dr. Arturo Jiron.
You’re no one here.
We wanted to change history, but destiny led us to this strange sensation of uncertainty and defeat. What did we do wrong? What mistakes did we make?
I’m accompanying my father who suffers a heart ailment.
We have to get out of here alive, Osvaldo.
I heard that they’re going to kill you all.
You’re not going to kill anyone in Dawson.
“They paid the price of their dreams with their own lives”
“Dawson, Island 10. Based on real events”
“Based on the book by Sergio Bitar, Island 10”