Salvador Allende

In the early ’70s, Patricio Guzmán was a young filmmaker. He had just returned home after studying in Spain. His career was barely starting when he decided to begin recording the events of his country’s social and political life. Like the rest of his fellow Chileans, and the world in fact, Guzmán had no idea what those events would lead to.

This decision would mark Guzmán’s work forever. Today, Patricio Guzmán is the author of some of the most complete and striking documents on the Chilean Popular Unity, the coup d’etat and the subsequent dictatorship. Until now, he had never dealt directly with Salvador Allende as a central topic. He had reflected, and hesitated. He feared the former President was too huge a figure to seize in a film. Finally, Guzmán overcame this fear and has made the documentary, Salvador Allende, which premiered at Cannes in 2004.

Salvador Allende is not really, or completely, a “portrait” of Salvador Allende, who represents too big a challenge to be confronted at present. Nor is it another contribution to the myth of the martyr President. It’s predominately a testimony to the importance Allende had and continues to have in Guzmán’s life. To a much greater extent than in his previous works, Salvador Allende is filmed in the first person. Since subjectivity is admitted from the outset, the documentary is clearly very far from being a possible hagiography. There is no attempt made to grasp the totality of the events that occurred, of Allende’s biography or even to describe his persona. That is not the documentary’s goal. There could be much more information included than there actually is. It doesn’t matter. The challenge that Guzmán sets himself is greater than that of just conveying information. Guzmán’s intention is to convey the feelings and thoughts, which Allende inspires in him, as well as in the hearts and minds of many others around the world.

This subjectivity makes writing about Salvador Allende an even more subjective exercise than otherwise. Previous information and personal connections will necessarily determine how far Salvador Allende reaches each viewer. (Though the same can be said for virtually any film.) Therefore, and though I rarely ever use the first person, I believe I should quickly state where I stand: I am Chilean, born after the coup, and with a deep personal concern for the past 35 years of my country’s history, and therefore for Salvador Allende – but without me or any close relatives having been directly involved or affected by the violence.

Thus, although I believe the documentary succeeds in transmitting the awe felt for an exceptional man, I can only guess to what extent an uninformed spectator will appreciate the film. And so, I feel, an historical overview would be useful when approaching the film. However, providing such an overview in full would be impracticable and pretentious due to the extent and weight of the endeavour, especially in this limited context, so perhaps simply to list certain facts as straightforwardly as possible would be more honest.

In 1970, representing a left-wing coalition known as the Popular Unity, socialist doctor Salvador Allende became the first Marxist president ever to be elected democratically anywhere in the world. This provoked an immediate reaction from the dominant right-wing class as well as from Nixon and Kissinger’s United States. Political violence began even before he was inaugurated: in an attempt to prevent the Congress from ratifying the election (1), conspiratorial military factions and the CIA plotted to kidnap René Schneider, the Commander-in-Chief of the army, loyal to the constitution, who was ultimately killed (2).

Salvador Allende

The “Chilean experience” was closely observed and followed by the entire world, since it was the first attempt to carry out a socialist revolution, not through arms, but by constitutional means. In fact, the country remained independent from the USSR. The first months were marked by great social and economic achievements, such as the legal nationalisation of the copper mines – the country’s main resource – and notable improvements in the quality of life of the country’s poorest. The growing support was expressed clearly in the 49.75% vote obtained by Popular Unity candidates in 1971’s municipal elections. For all those who shared his aspirations, both inside and outside of Chile, Salvador Allende represented much more than an ideology. He was one of the most charismatic and respected political figures. But most of all, he represented hope and faith in a more just world.

Young Patricio Guzmán was one of these people. He believed in the Popular Unity’s project, and was already at work filming his documentary Primer año (First Year, 1971). He went on filming when the opposition started gaining more and more power. La respuesta de octubre (The October Reply, 1972) covered a major blockade initiated by truck owners in 1972, as part of a boycott to destabilise the government.

Little by little, as he documented the increasingly agitated and aggressive atmosphere in Chilean society, Guzmán was accumulating precious material that would later become his master trilogy, The Battle of Chile (1975–79).

On September 11th, 1973, the military coup put an end to it all. True to his promise not to surrender the administration to which the people had appointed him, Salvador Allende killed himself when the House of Government was attacked by air and land. 17 years of an astonishingly cruel dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet began. Murder and torture were institutionalised. Thousands and thousands fled the country, including many artists and filmmakers. Guzmán was able to smuggle his material out of the country and edit together The Battle of Chile overseas. Just like many of his colleagues, Guzmán continued making films about Chile in exile. In 1987, he made En nombre de Dios (In God’s Name), which deals with the essential role played by a part of the Church in protecting victims of the dictatorship.

Once the regime was over, a very delicate issue emerged in Chile (and still continues): that of the memory of the recent past. They say man has a short memory. But in the case of the Chilean people, it is virtually non-existent. Fortunately, many documentary makers of all generations have been insistently trying to fill in the gaps. Guzmán went back to Chile to show The Battle of Chile, which too few people have seen in the country. He showed it to students who, like much of the population, especially those born after the coup and in the privileged sectors of society, had barely any idea of what had occurred 25 years prior. The result was Chile, la memoria obstinada (Chile, Obstinate Memory, 1997). He continued to explore the same subject when he covered Pinochet’s arrest and judicial proceedings in Europe in Le Cas Pinochet (2001).

Guzmán has intermittently filmed Chile, the coup and its aftermath for more than 30 years. As a result, he’s collected invaluable footage of his own as well as archival material, from forgotten days (and it is important to note that what Chile is really obstinate about is forgetting). He had collected so much about Salvador Allende, the man who, once he began following him during his campaign back in 1970, would become so central to his life. The time had come to pay him homage. Not to reconstruct. Not to explain. Not to try to seize the man in a film. Simply to pay him homage.

In that sense, Salvador Allende is not surprising at all. It is absolutely coherent, logical, predictable. Sooner or later, it had to come. It is true it could have come one way or another, and the choice to render a personal tribute instead of trying to appropriate a universal figure is surely the wisest. It’s refreshing. It’s essentially honest.

Salvador Allende poster

The French publicity poster for Salvador Allende (as well as playing at Cannes, the documentary also gained a theatrical release in France) essentially comprises text instead of image. Following the name of the deceased President, the first word is “I”. “I remember September 11th 1973…” It is Patricio Guzmán, speaking about his memories. From all aspects, he is revealing this fundamental aspect of the film. And this is how it should be read. What is sustained throughout the 100-minute documentary is that speaking position of “I remember…” Not that the documentary is based solely on personal remembrance. On the contrary, an important part of the work is Guzmán’s search for Allende through the information, the memories and the analysis that others can provide.

Salvador Allende is in a way a collage. A huge amount of material is put together in such a way that in the end a clear, larger picture emerges. The individual bits may be more or less impressive to each viewer, according to the novelty of the information, the sympathy aroused by the feelings and experiences presented, or simply due to the particular sensibility of each person. But the ensemble leaves a global impression of who the man was, what he represented, and why it was important for this film to be made.

Among the material, there is a fair amount of information. The archival footage provides striking sequences, such as the interview with the former US ambassador who articulates his country’s position towards Allende and what he stood for, and their decision on how to act. Hopefully today this attitude, this cold analysis of how to violently interfere with another country’s democratic processes in order to preserve one country’s supremacy, should not be much of a surprise for anyone. But it is always interesting to see how history not only does not teach us anything (or, better said, we refuse to learn), but also how history seems to repeat itself in the most obvious ways.

Other words that could have perfectly well been said today, instead of more than three decades ago, are those pronounced by Allende before the United Nations General Assembly, in which he denounces the perverse economics of a global economy dominated by multinationals, and the terrible threat they represent by not being subject to any democratic control. The heartfelt speech, which provoked a standing ovation, shows the man’s rhetorical talent, his lucidity and his uncompromising humanity, and will surely make those who don’t know him understand why so many worldwide still regret his loss, and are certain that, if he were still among us, he would somehow be making this world, or at least a part of it, a better place.

These and other older records are presented in a constant dialogue with the present. The filmmaker complements his testimony with those of people who knew Allende, or with others who can give another dimension of what the events in Chile represent. As in most documentaries dealing with questions of the past, it is just as much a matter of understanding yesterday’s reality as it is of understanding today’s. This quest leads Guzmán to different people and places. In a city that refuses to remember, it is always interesting to see how the vestiges of past horrors are currently camouflaged amongst the frantic daily routine of a modern city. Vestiges as important and unavoidable as the house where Allende used to live (Guzmán tries to talk to neighbours, but no one in this well-off bourgeois neighbourhood wants to speak), or the huge National Stadium, where the soccer games are regularly played in the middle of Santiago, and that 31 years ago served as a concentration camp where thousands were arrested, tortured and killed.

The confrontation between past and present, so dreadfully alike in their most menacing aspects and so hopelessly different in their aspirations, goes beyond the Chilean case in the parallel drawn between the tensions and violence surrounding Allende, due to “internal” opposition that later proved to have more than the simple support of the CIA, with what has been happening with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

For the Chilean people who want to remember, who reject the idea that in order to advance we must forget, of course Salvador Allende adds a meaningful piece to the puzzle. Especially because he has long been the symbol of division in society, he has been reduced to a representation of the brutal schism, turned into a uni-dimensional myth. Abroad, for those who knew him as a social leader, those who, mostly from the other side of the Atlantic, admired Allende and personally mourned his death and the defeat of his dreams, the film will also add a new dimension by placing him in the context of the society that loved and killed him. But for everyone, even for those who know nothing about Salvador Allende, the material can be very enlightening. What happened in Chile over a period of two decades does not have to do with a particular circumstance or a particular reality. It has to do with human nature, with dreams, hopes, cowardice and with the most amazing callousness. And all this is universal enough to speak to anyone who wishes to listen.


  1. Allende was elected with barely a 36.3% of the vote, whereas the right-wing candidate obtained 35%. According to the Constitution, instead of a second round, the Congress should decide. Allende was ratified by 153 votes against 35. Nevertheless, his narrow victory reveals the extent of the political polarisation.
  2. The CIA’s activities in Chile are confirmed by the agency: http://www.cia.gov/cia/reports/chile/

About The Author

Pamela Biénzobas is a Chilean film critic based in France. She is currently finishing her master's thesis at Paris X-Nanterre on the reception of Chilean cinema by the French critique, focusing on the influence of extra-cinematographic elements (such as political and social context) in the perception of films.

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