Early on in Ellen Perry's jaw-dropper of a documentary, Fall of Fujimori, the controversial former leader of Peru is seen applying his makeup, dabbing on foundation with a sponge and peering into a mirror. It's a disarming and curious moment, made all the more incongruous by the information that has preceded it: Alberto Fujimori is living in exile in Japan, wanted on charges of corruption, kidnapping, and murder in Peru.
In its own way, the scene is a subtler reworking of the footage of U.S. pols primping, prepping, and running spit-covered combs through their hair in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. Like Moore's film, Fujimori aims to show its viewers what goes on behind the stagecraft of politics and the ugliness behind its façade. Perry has a lighter hand than Moore does, however; as a result, her film disturbs in a more nuanced fashion. She intrigues, perturbs, and asks many questions, but provides few answers – an approach that will likely provoke viewers into scurrying to find out more about the underreported story of Peru and its self-anointed savior-turned-strongman.
"Hollywood actors pale next to my husband," says Susan Higuchi, Fujimori's former wife. And indeed, the former president seems to have a knack for framing his dramatic narrative: By turns, he presents himself as the ethnic outsider who could speak for Peru's indigenous groups, the tough-on-terrorism leader, the school-builder. On camera, Fujimori has a gentlemanly affability, only occasionally broken by his overweening confidence in the story of his presidency. "God gives everyone a duty," he says. "I really like the work of a president." He's a true believer, all right -- in himself.
Perry charts the arc of Fujimori's rise and fall against the backdrop of Peruvian history -- the government's brutal battles with leftist guerrillas, the country's' towering inflation, and its lack of infrastructure, particularly in rural areas. The son of Japanese immigrants, Fujimori was a university president at the time of Peru's 1990 elections, a quintessential dark-horse candidate who was completely untried in politics. Yet, by dint of his ethnic otherness (the Peruvians dubbed him "El Chino," the Chinese one), and his insistence on driving into shantytowns in a "Fujimobile," one commentator explains, Fujimori was able to secure a surprising victory.
As presented by Perry, Fujimori's reign is a fascinating study in means and ends. Thousands of deaths in terrorist attacks, the all-out pursuit of a shadowy leader, a campaign against suspects that included torture -- these elements of Peru's story may ping U.S. viewers with uncomfortable similarities to our own war on terrorism. As Perry frames it, Peru serves as a potent warning of the corruption that can take root when power is wielded in the name of righteousness. "Terrorism was done in the name of revolution," says Fujimori. "I started a revolution myself … for the citizens."
Citing the country's battles with the Maoist Shining Path movement and the Marxist-Leninist Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, Fujimori declared a "self-coup" and dissolved his congress -- in effect, he declared martial law and set himself up as dictator. While his government did much to quell the violent leftist movements in his country, and was, according to some of the film's commentators, a positive force on the whole, Fujimori's regime was later marked by the terror he claimed to eradicate. The president's adviser to the national intelligence service, Vladimiro Montesinos, ran amok, bribing politicians, detonating bombs outside naysayers' homes, and setting paramilitary death squads on suspected leftists. Fujimori's detractors claim Montesinos operated with the full knowledge and support of the president; Fujimori's supporters, meanwhile, declare El Chino's innocence.
Perry's film doesn't draw conclusions for its viewers, presenting instead a wealth of footage from which we can form our own arguments. The film is a masterwork of editing -- Perry punctuates her points with often gory footage of prisons, death-squad raids, even a home video shot by Fujimori's son that shows the president and Montesinos making knowing references to covering up some dirty deed. Interspersed with the found footage are fascinatingly candid interviews with Fujimori as he travels around Tokyo, meeting and greeting right-wing politicians and admirers. Why on earth is he doing these interviews? a viewer may think, before the answer comes clear: Fujimori still believes in himself as a righteous leader.
The result is a compelling portrait of a charming man corrupted by his own grandiose visions. But Fujimori's training as a scientist (he was an agricultural engineer and lecturer in mathematics before he was president) occasionally peeks through, to fascinating effect; he appears as a reality-based individual fighting with the myth-making hero. He explains the convoluted rationalization he used to justify running for a third, illegal term -- and suddenly stops himself, laughingly admitting, "Okay, it might sound a little forced." He calmly tells Perry that he and his wife would eat dinners together even as she ran for the presidency against him. After the filmmaker's astonished follow-up question, he pauses and then the façade breaks apart. "It was crazy!" he declares. "It was completely absurd."
The film has a brisk pace -- at times, perhaps, a bit too fast. Perry doesn't explain Fujimori's original platform, nor does she delve sufficiently into Peru's disenchantment with its Spanish-descended intellectual and political elite, an anger that contributed largely to voters throwing their support behind a nearly unknown candidate. Similarly, the complex racial and class dynamics in Peru are not fully explored, and too often, she relies on voiceovers without telling her viewers who is speaking. Occasionally these missteps converge, as when one anonymous commentator likens Fujimori to "a bloodthirsty samurai." Who is the fool who said that? And why isn't Fujimori's Japanese-ness, and the roles of Japanese in Peruvian society -- not just his "otherness" or "not-Spanish" qualities -- more fully addressed, save for this throwaway comment?
All in all, however, Perry's film is a complex personal portrait, set against a political landscape remarkable for both its turmoil and international relevance to the current wars on terrorism. This story sheds light on issues that transcend its borders, and, like many a good story, it gets better and better -- or crazier, as the case may be. Fujimori, for example, just this month announced that he intends to run for president in Peru's April 2006 elections. "El Chino," he said with a smile, "will be back."
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.