John Summa's film about the life and brutal murder of the singer-songwriter and political activist features U2's Bono, Pete Seeger and other musical legends

For the past six years, John Summa has been teaching courses in the Department of Economics as a full-time lecturer while conducting research into financial markets behavior and theories of the firm. In his free time, meanwhile, beginning over 12 years ago, he has been working on a feature-length film documentary produced across three countries (USA, France, and Chile) on the life of legendary Chilean singer-songwriter and political activist Victor Jara.

Considered the Bob Dylan of South America, Jara was assassinated shortly after the Chilean coup of 1973 for his political views and support for the democratic election of Popular Unity party candidate, President Salvador Allende, who was elected in November of 1970.

Summa’s new film, The Resurrection of Victor Jara, features Joan Jara (Victor’s wife), U2’s Bono, actor Emma Thompson, Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul & Mary and Arlo Guthrie among other artists and musicians impacted by Victor’s story and music. The film was directed by John Travers, brother of the late Mary Travers of Peter Paul and Mary trio fame, and was written and produced by Summa via his own Vermont film production company, Rise Up Filming, LLC

The feature-length documentary, edited by Summa in UVM Media Services, was screened Oct. 24 at the Vermont International Film Festival, and won the highly-coveted Ben & Jerry's Award. The award is given to a Vermont filmmaker who shines a light with the lens on an important social or environmental issue with “verve and ingenuity.”

We asked Summa what it was like to spend more than a decade working on a film about such an iconic figure and his plans to enter the film in major festivals in an effort to gain widespread distribution.

UVM TODAY: I liked the way you started the film by focusing on Jara’s youth as the son of peasants, subsequent rise as a musician and national folk hero, and later emergence as one of the world’s major political activists. It must have been difficult to decide how to tell such a complex and emotional story about a truly beloved national figure.

Summa: Well, it took me over 1,000 hours of editing to cut through the more than 100 interviews we did to find a story that would work. I decided to organize the film into a three-act structure, which is typical of all films. Then I storyboarded scenes that worked inside each act and logically and emotionally fit into the arc represented by the three-act structure. There was a lot of groping around, reading interview transcripts and identifying elements of the story. However, it all needed to be worked up with moving images, so in the end I had to organize the images into a structure and see what I had in terms of folks saying things that empowered those images. Sometimes you need to turn the volume off and just watch what you created to see if the images alone tell a story. Ideally, that is what you want. After all, it is film, not radio.

Why a film about Jara?

I fell in love with the kind of music Victor represented, and I wanted to share that love through film. The music is called Nueva Cancion (New Song). I encountered for the first time this music during trips to Latin America in the early 1980s as a journalist and activist against former president Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. New Song music is similar to music here in this country, like songs of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. Recycling the blues is a form of new song, where traditional forms are injected with new and powerful contemporary meaning, a sort of zeitgeist effect inside older, yet still powerful forms of playing music. Here it was singing blues, music of the former African-American slaves. In Chile, they tapped into Andean roots, the musical traditions of the indigenous people. To do this was itself radical in such a conservative culture. They were the first world musicians, in effect. I wanted to tell the world about this. 

How did you manage to convince the likes of Bono, Pete Seeger and other major musicians and political figures to participate in the film, and in some cases support it?

It was not easy, but they participated because they shared the same love for Victor and his music. I had many doubts, however, that we could pull this off. First, Victor is so sacred a subject that to even attempt a film as a non-Chilean, or non-Latino, I thought would be sacrilege. However, after building connections to exiled Chileans and others we got a team together, which includes our executive producer, Fernando A. Torres, a well-known New Song musician whose brother is the revered Chilean musician Osvaldo Torres. This team also includes Bernardo Palombo, an Argentinean composer who provided essential support and advice. Bernardo has been covered by Mercedes Sosa and many other musicians worldwide, and has been directing the Latin American Workshop in New York City for over 30 years. John Travers, a master of the camera and the film’s award-winning director from Hollywood, made the quality of the film what it is in visual terms. He did an enormous amount of work that I carried on with in post-production when we ran out of money. 

Jara is often compared to Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger for his revolutionary songs, but in many ways he came across in the film as even more significant in terms of the impact he had on shaping the culture and political landscape of an entire country for which he died. Is that fair to say?

Yes, I think you are right. But I would say across a continent, not just a country. Victor transcends politics. You don’t have to like the politics associated with Victor to love him. If you grew up listening to him, it was hard to not fall in love with the songs and his spirit. He is much like Pete Seeger, who we lost last year. He was the second person we interviewed for the film in 2006, and you have to be in his presence to know his magic. He wrote songs that became anthems in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements. Victor wrote songs that became anthems in the struggle in Latin America for their own independence from foreign domination and freedom from economic exploitation. He is more like Pete in terms of the political activism, but more like Bob Dylan in terms of his mastery of songwriting and lyrical content. Pete was great, but Dylan and Jara put out many more amazing song gems. Here Victor is more like Woody Guthrie, who wrote over 2,000 songs.

There’s a disturbing connection between the U.S.-backed effort to oust Chilean leader Salvador Allende in support of the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990), and the death of Jara. The murderers of Jara and thousands of other Chileans under Pinochet have largely gone unprosecuted. Why do you think that is, and are you encouraged by some of the recent arrests due to films like yours that call attention to the issue?

Well, I don’t want to give away an important part of the film, so I cannot say too much here. In short, it has taken far too long to move the justice for Victor Jara case forward. Too little has been done, but hopefully it is not too late. Most North Americans don’t know what happened or happens in South America. I think if they did, they would be outraged at what the U.S. government has done, and continues to do, in the hemisphere. In short, the U.S. government is one of the reasons justice has been slow for all the victims of the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Pinochet government. Fortunately, just recently Secretary of State John Kerry has declassified some State Department cables and memos and has given them to the current president, Michele Bachelet. These belated steps are important to get at the truth, but these documents arguably would have led to prosecution of Pinochet had they been released earlier. One is a "smoking gun" document implicating Pinochet in acts of terrorism in Washington, D.C.

I’m assuming your background as a journalist for more than 30 years in the U.S, Latin America, Asia and Europe with a focus on social change movements helped you with the development of the film 

Yes, the camera has replaced the pen. But the common denominator is educating. Filmmaking, journalism, teaching -- it is all driven by my passion to inform. I learned how to make films in the 1980s, when I made my first documentary about the U.S.-backed Contra war in Nicaragua. The film proves that the Contras were terrorists organized by the Reagan officials to attack Nicaraguans and destroy the popular Sandinista government in the early and mid-1980s. The New York Times gave it a favorable review, to my surprise. I am thinking of merging economics and film next. I began working on a film doc last year with a working title "Rebel Economics" about the battle emerging worldwide to democratize the curriculum found in most economics departments. It is a story I am actually part of myself.

What's next for the documentary? I understand you are trying to enter it into other major film festivals such as Tribeca.

I am crossing my fingers that it does well in the larger festivals. Sundance and Tribeca and South by Southwest are my targets. There is a lot of competition. But if the planets align just right maybe we get officially accepted at one of these top-tier festivals. The film has a very hard news component to it, and that is related to a burning political and social issue. Plus, the music in the story is music of the 1960s folk revival in South America, linked to the same here. We are going through a neo-folk revival here these days, too. Very exciting trends and events that raise the interest level in the film. Hopefully enough to get to Park City, Utah in January to Sundance.


Jon Reidel
Victor Jara documentary
Watch the trailer for 'The Resurrection of Victor Jara.'