The Sky Is Red is a necessary documentary, but it’s a tough one to watch. It is also a difficult story to explain. Perhaps that is why Francina Carbonell decided to stick so closely to the court files of the case investigation on the incident.
Focused on the scandalous trial for the death of 81 inmates in the fire of Tower 5, in the San Miguel prison in 2010, The Sky Is Red reveals the infamous living conditions of the penitentiary facilities in Chile.
Starting the painful procession of facts from the judicial analysis of the incident, on the fourth floor of Tower 5, the black walls, the flooded floors, and the closed, windowless, empty rooms, presage a monumental catastrophe.
Only the sound montage is allowed certain licenses, setting up the dead to yell among the living with a clamor that makes the hair stand on end. It seems that indignant ghosts lurk in the dark.
An expert test on a mattress and some sheets carried out by the fire services transports us to the hecatomb that must have been the fire inside the prison. The claustrophobic overcrowding of dozens of prisoners sharing a single room, separated into small groups by curtains made of blankets, bunks, and sheets looms the worst. The voracious fire licks over the bunks and in a few seconds, black smoke takes it all. For the first time, we glimpse the remains of the disaster, only the gnawed iron of the metal bunks remains. The rest is a sooty fireplace.
Waiting at the gates
In the early morning of that day, dozens of family members wait at the gates of the building to catch up in the queue and visit their relatives. The messages sent between relatives and inmates give good testimony, recounting the drama from its beginning.
Technical police drawings show dozens of bodies piled up, trying to escape. But escape is impossible for the 81 inmates who met an unworthy end. The fire advanced so fast that in 3 minutes an entire gallery of the prison was burned. Firefighters were notified by a prisoner, but they were slow to arrive. So much so that relatives waiting outside broke the entrance gate trying to save their beloved. Although, in the end, they were unable to access the building or open the doors.
Chile has the highest GDP per capita in South America, but its prison system has unacceptable deficiencies with overcrowding of 70% of the inmates, which in the San Miguel prison reached 90% at the time of the incident. The facilities could house 1,100 inmates, but they had 1961, the number of guards was clearly insufficient and their preparation to face the fire, totally non-existent.
The scandal was considerable, the media gave wide coverage to the incident, and the debate about the state of the penitentiary facilities in Chile was opened wide, but the proceedings of the courts carried out no convictions.
It is not clear that there is a single culprit for the tragedy. The insufficient presence of the gendarmerie and their slow action, inadequate protocols, non-existent training, general disorder, overcrowding, the political malpractice of a problem that has dragged on for years… all of them add their grain of sand to the lamentable treatment of prisoners in Chile. With 55% of prisons over their capacity, the San Miguel disaster was clearly predictable.
It is not clear that there is a single culprit for the tragedy.
Without going into the efficiency or adequacy of a prison system that condemns a kid for selling pirated movies to 20 days of overcrowded existence next to a serial killer, the film carries more than enough reasons to not get entangled in more discussions about the reasoning behind the penal system’s methods.
Beyond the tragedy
The documentary, beyond the tragedy, forces us to ask ourselves about the nature of the deprivation of freedom and reclusion. When many countries have already understood that the function of prisons must be reintegration and reeducation, some still maintain a devilish game of power, justifying the state through its force against those who are deemed to deserve it. In some way, it is thanks to the marginal populations that fall beyond the law that the state justifies its existence as a violent entity. As an executioner. Fleeing this dichotomy requires a level of maturity. It will require abandoning some of the more paternalistic forms of the modern state.
Francina Carbonell is introduced to the international fests with a forceful debut, a solid plot, and a balanced message. It explains yet allows us to think. It opens the debates but refrains from unnecessary judgments. She delves into a complicated question and manages to argue without being overwhelming.
The documentary, beyond the tragedy, forces us to ask ourselves about the nature of the deprivation of freedom and reclusion.
It must be noted, as well, the sound direction at the hands of Vicente del Pedregal, who achieves, through some of the very few narrative licenses that Carbonell allows in this film, to fully introduce us into the tragedy and put ourselves on the side of the inmates, humanize the dehumanized, bring close those who fell off society on the ugliest side and received its most cruel treatment.