The documentary State of Fear takes on a subject that is not well-known to most Canadians: the 1980-2000 battle between the Peruvian government and a group of Peruvian Marxist guerrillas called the Shining Path. The stories and images contained in the film, however, are all too familiar. They tell of a president who uses a terrorist attack on his country to gain unprecedented powers, and a people who let him because they are willing, in the words of one of the film’s interviewees “to exchange democracy for security.”
That this story has echoes in George W. Bush’s war on terror is clearly not a coincidence, but it’s hard to know how deliberate the filmmaker’s attempt to draw parallels is. Should Americans, and perhaps Canadians, genuinely fear that the same thing that happened in Peru might happen here, or is the film’s American director, Pamela Yates, exaggerating the parallels to convince North Americans it could happen here? Most people will need to do further research to find out. But given the lack of attention that has been paid to this subject to date, that could only be a good thing.
If this chapter in Peruvian history remains unknown to most people outside the country, it’s not because it’s insignificant–some 70,000 people were ultimately killed. Two of the film’s interviewees, a former child soldier recruited by the Shining Path and a former Peruvian army officer in particular, are absolutely riveting. Recounting the acts of horrific brutality they committed, the two men show ghastly little emotion. But they don’t seem callous as a result. They seem to feel that they were merely doing what anyone would do in a similar situation, and they’re probably right. Even if the Canadian and American militaries have exercised more restraint than Peru’s, State of Fear makes it clear they could follow a similar course if left unchecked.
The film could have made this point just as effectively, however, without a narrator whose commentary is frequently unnecessary and often incredibly melodramatic. Some of the people interviewed in State of Fear are more compelling than others, but all of them are more compelling than the narrator.
Because of the efforts of many of the people featured in the film, today Peru is starting to recover from this dark part of its past. Peruvians are determined, as one of them observes, that, “No country and no person anywhere in the world should ever have to repeat our experience.” Even despite it’s occasional ham-fistedness, State of Fear leaves its audience with one unmistakable notion: If it could happen in South America, it could happen a little bit farther north as well.