Crudely shot but shrewdly conceived, Pamela Yates’s State of Fear offers an instructive glimpse at the 20-year reign of terror that consumed Peru beginning in the early ‘80s with the rise of the Maoist terror group Shining Path led by messianic philosophy professor Abimael Guzmán and ending with the ousting of President Alberto Fujimori. This is a chronicle of a massacre foretold, and though Yates doesn’t spend nearly enough time explicating the rationale for the insurgent Guzmán’s rise to power, she’s brutal in her condemnation of his guerilla tactics, which included murdering impoverished natives from the Ayachucho region who didn’t want to partake in his revolution against the country’s cosmopolitan high order. In the film’s second half, Yates turns her poison-pen gaze to Fujimori. In dissolving the country’s congress, the man was able to rule by decree and combat terrorism with scant interference, but little was accomplished beyond further victimization of innocent lives. (One woman details how she, as a 19-year-old virgin, was raped and impregnated by Fujimori’s cronies, who thought she was able to provide them with the names of fellow student guerillas; in reality, they had kidnapped and imprisoned her before she had time to enroll in school.)
Yates, by way of the doc’s Karen Duffy (!) voiceover, encourages us to strike parallels between Peru’s war on terror and any other crusade of its ilk without ever turning her attention away from the crisis at hand. It’s homework we must do on our own. Not once is George W. Bush, Fox News, Osama bin Laden, the World Trade Center, or Guantanamo invoked, and yet we find a ready likeness here for each and every one: in Fujimori, the TV stations that accepted his bribes, Guzmán, the attacks on Lima that brought the country’s social inequities to the fore, and the questionable tactics employed by Fujimori’s operatives (which included spying and false imprisonment). This is part of the film’s quiet success: its revelation as a cautionary tale, allowing us to recognize how any two wars on terror, though motivated by slightly different reasons, seem to unravel in much the same way and with a similar cast of heroes and villains. If history is bound to repeat itself, as State of Fear insinuates, does the Peruvian Truth Commission’s acknowledgement of the country’s reign of terror mean that Americans will one day too get a museum that will collect visual evidence—like, say, pictures of our dead soldiers—of Bush’s global war on terror?