Review: ‘Haydee and the Flying Fish’

Hot Docs 2019

5 mins read

Haydee and the Flying Fish
(Chile, Brazil, 73 minutes)
Dir. Pachi Bustos
Programme: Persister (World Premiere)

In 1975, Haydee Oberreuter was a young Chilean woman, who during the Pinochet dictatorship committed the unforgiveable sin of trying to help his victims. Like thousands of other Chileans she was arrested and tortured. Many prisoners were never heard from again. She survived, and after years of trying to lead a normal life, sought justice in the courts.

Bustos’s film opens on images of a dark, turbulent sea and cuts to a shot of Haydee from behind, standing up straight and facing forward. Her life was almost destroyed long ago by horrifying trauma, but she has persisted, raising a son and a daughter who appear in the film. From the beginning of the doc, we see Haydee’s especially strong bond with her daughter.

Talking about Haydee, Bustos told an interviewer that she “found her story of detention and torture heartbreaking, but what struck me the most was her attitude towards life. Her strength, energy, and commitment. Her sense of truth and justice. Her [ability] to retain these qualities in spite of the horrors she experienced.”

As those horrors are revealed, the film probes the depths of cruelty and leaves you wondering how could Haydee’s captors, how could any human beings, do what they did to her? Haydee was one of the pregnant women tortured in Pinochet’s prisons; when the beatings caused her to miscarry, the torturers found that amusing and celebrated eliminating a terrorist. A “terrorist before he was born,” Haydee says.
Beatings and inducing a miscarriage weren’t enough. They terrified Haydee with a fake firing squad and autopsy. They used acid and electric shocks on her. And worst of all the damage they did to this woman, whose crime was helping victimized people, they sliced open the front of her body with a hunting knife.

The torturers were not hooded medieval brutes. They were clean-cut naval officers. Idealized images of naval officers visualize how Haydee and other young women were drawn to them, real-life Prince Charmings who turned out to be sadistic perverts.

Like many survivors of Pinochet’s regime, Haydee was silent and invisible until a magazine called Plan B, out to cover the story of pregnant victims, published an article about her. An elderly lawyer read the article and filled with disgust filed a judicial complaint on Haydee’s behalf.

Bustos’s film tracks the attempt to bring the four Prince Charmings to justice. Haydee is shown remaining calm and patient through court delay after delay. Her one meltdown, the emotional climax of the film, happens during preparations for breast cancer surgery (yes that too). She needs to describe her mutilations, the damage to internal organs, and her many reconstructive surgeries because the hunting knife wounds healed without intervention. When a nurse draws blood, we see the full extent of the psychological agony Haydee has managed to control. Terrified of sharp objects, she howls and weeps as the little pinprick is likely triggering physical memory of the butchery she endured.

In Haydee and the Flying Fish, Bustos favours dialogue between characters rather than straight to camera filming. The people in the film, ranging from supporters to lawyers, judges, and doctors, emerge clearly and fully as people, not just subjects.

Throughout the film, Bustos holds on what look like very long freeze frames, or stills; one example is when Haydee hugs her daughter. Perhaps meant to suggest Haydee’s experience of intense moments, the technique can seem like some kind of a glitch and then feels like an awkward, unnecessary imposition.

With its inspirational, bittersweet ending that evokes the memory of the son who never lived, Haydee and the Flying Fish reminds Chileans and the outside world of horrors that have been largely forgotten.

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