It's probably fair to say that there are not many people who have lived a life as remarkable as Sybila Arredondo, whose fascinating story is the subject of new Chilean film Sibila, which won the best national documentary award at the Santiago Festival of International Documentary (FIDOCS) 2012. It is a compelling character study that weaves into its narrative fabric issues of morality, personal accountability, family and politics. At its core is the seventy-five year old Sybila (the difference in spelling in the film title is unclear), whose sweet face, warm smile and cheerful demeanor are at odds with the events of her story, and the serious crimes for which she was jailed.
Sybila Aredondo (Image courtesy of Sibila)
The film is the debut feature from Teresa Arredondo, Sybila’s niece, a Peruvian-Chilean whose childhood memories of her aunt inspired its concept. Born in Lima in 1978, she grew up in Chile where the name of her aunt was conspicuous by how little it was mentioned. She has early memories of visiting the incarcerated Sybila, only once, and how her parents would deliberately avoid mentioning her. The film opens with a voiceover from the director, set against grainy footage of the forbidding exterior of a prison, which sets the tone: ‘I was nervous because I had never been in a prison. I went through several bars before getting to the yard where she was. She smiled’. This contrast between the warmth of a woman’s (unseen on film) smile and the imposing menace of high walls, steel bars and razor wire is repeated throughout the film, as the morally-opaque personality of Sybila gradually emerges, leaving the audience to cast its own judgment upon her transgressions.
As a young woman, Sybila was the partner of Chilean poet Jorge Teillier, who was an exponent of poetry larica, a style that looks to the past to draw distinctions with current customs. After the relationship ended, she fell in love with the Peruvian writer Jose María Arguedas, whom she married in 1965, and whose bilingual work, in both Spanish and Quechua, reflects the mestizo background of his ancestry and saw him become one of the leading twentieth century literary figures in South America. Sybila stayed with Arguedas until his suicide in 1969, and remained in Peru following his death rather than return to her native Chile.
Sybila in prison in Peru (Image courtesy of Sibila)
Yet it is not Sybila’s role as the spouse of two Latin American literary greats that forms the focus of the documentary. In the 1980s she was convicted of membership of Sendero Luminoso, the Maoist revolutionary guerrilla group which arose in the rural mountain regions of Peru and whose insurgency in that decade led to a civil war that left over twenty thousand dead. The group conducted a bloody campaign of bombings and killings that was reciprocated by the authorities as the country was gripped by violence. She was sentenced to, and served, fifteen years in prison.
The subject of Aunt Sybila was somewhat taboo in the household of the young Teresa Arredondo, and the director interviews both her parents over why this was so. Arredondo’s Peruvian mother is firmly anti-Sendero and refused to allow talk of such matters in the family home. Her father, Sibila’s brother, is more sympathetic towards his sister’s plight but still doesn’t offer many genuine explanations as to why her path took such a radical shift. Unable to find the answers to her many questions about her aunt, Arredondo takes the only option left and heads to Europe.
Sybila in France (Image courtesy of Sibila)
Sybila is now an old woman living a peaceful life in rural France, and it is not until around the half-way point of the film that we finally meet her. Pottering in her home, all warm smiles and jovial mannerisms, Aunt Sybila is a long way from the popular image of a terrorist, and it is hard to associate her with such violent acts. Yet gradually another side of the woman emerges, largely brought about by Arredondo’s probing and frankness. Once the relationship between the two is established, the director pursues a tough line of questioning that is commendable in its honesty. It is an intriguing insight into the elder woman’s mind, as she reveals bit by bit her political persuasion, without ever admitting or denying her involvement with Sendero Luminoso. Yet she refutes the notion that the revolutionaries were terrorists, arguing that their political stance discounts them from such a term. She is never entirely convincing in her claims, and this is picked up on by Arredondo, who finally, after much pressing, provokes the angry admonition from her aunt, ‘You are speaking with the mouth of Bush!’
Throughout the film, Arredondo bravely interrogates and tackles her various family members until the narrative is fully developed and the audience is left to draw its own conclusions. It is an involving and morally murky story that takes in grand events but compacts them into the context of the family dynamic, providing Sibila with much more of a human focus than a political one. The film poses many questions relating to human ethics and responsibility, while never seeking to preach or influence, and offers a fascinating glimpse into the insight of an outcast.
Sibila (Winner of Best National Documentary FIDOCS 2012)
Teresa Arredondo, 2012
Release Date TBC
Official website with trailer