“Un País que no tiene cine documental es como una familia sin álbum de fotografías.”
– Patricio Guzmán (1)
“I made the film because I was passionate about what was going on. It was like opening your window and seeing a whole social movement reveal itself right before your eyes. We were contemplating history right in front of us-Allende talking, fights on one side, struggles on the other, the police… It was a huge spectacle.”
– Patricio Guzmán (2)
For a continent with such a long tradition of dictatorship, it is surprising to find only one definitive cinematographic document of the dehumanisation, alienation, murder, and complete destruction of democratic structures across South America by such rulers as Videla and Galtieri in Argentina, Velazco Alvarado and Fujimori in Perú, Pinochet in Chile, Stroessner in Paraguay, and the even larger list of civilian and military regimes that resulted in thousands of deaths, the collapse of societies, widespread disappearances, incarcerations, the complete suppression of freedom of speech, and more. Patricio Guzmán, now an accomplished and widely celebrated filmmaker, and his crew of novices gave their freedom and even their lives (Jorge Müller Silva, the cameraman, disappeared) to create one of the greatest documentary accomplishments of all time, La batalla de Chile (The Battle of Chile, 1975-78) – an account of the tenure of socialist president Salvador Allende and the coup d’état lead by right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Produced by Chris Marker (who provided much of the film stock for the documentary), The Battle of Chile is a colossal endeavour. It is a three-part documentary (with a “fourth” released almost 20 years later) about the whole process of the congressional election in Chile and the period of Allende’s socialist government – who from the beginning was swimming upstream, fighting against the old right-wing of Chile and, especially, the secret interests of the CIA and the USA. In this “battle” Chile was cleaved in half – its population and structures of power confronted, international doors closed, and internal pressure magnified. It is as if Allende’s presidency was doomed from the very start.
But the exercise of memory that Guzmán proposes in The Battle of Chile doesn’t arise from the sorrow of the defeated; on the contrary, it is as he says, the persistent memory of a country that refuses to forget its people’s fight. It recognises a coalition of people with a common dream: the so called Marxist utopia that was eventually crushed but still remains in memory, providing a concrete parallel to the ethereal dreams of May 1968.
The open wounds of the 1970s remain not only in Chile, but also in most other Latin American countries. Nevertheless, Guzmán in the first part of his documentary notes a more specific phenomenon: the right-wing movement and wealthy sectors of the country who had begun a massive mobilisation to stop Allende’s congressional right to power. In this context, the “Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie” was not an oxymoron but a true social phenomenon put into practice. The systematic use of violence within specific civilian organisations escalated exponentially in the first years of Allende’s presidency, reaching a pivotal point during the congressional elections. Guzmán documented the resistance of the people of Chile against the people of Chile.
“Everything I did, all my actions, all of the problems I had I dedicate to God and to Chile, because I kept Chile from becoming Communist.”
– Augusto Pinochet
With the country so divided, the bravery of Allende, who fought with his life to advocate a Marxist model of government, is more than admirable. There were few presidents at that time who had such passion and determination for their political projects. Throughout the years, a deconstruction of sorts has occurred in Latin America, which now nests a vast variety of “political movements” that are nothing but a shadow of their predecessors. In this regard, one must think about the politics confronted by this documentary and the legacy they have left with us today. Between demagogic left-wing governments and traditional capitalist-oriented right-wing ones, one is left with a quiet despair, waiting for truly refreshing revolutionary ideas, a new order of society that redistributes the “governing” of political affairs to the ones who deserve it the most.
But beyond political propaganda, and the facts that are now known (but somehow still denied in some parts of Chile), lies the mastery of Guzmán, a true documentarian. The Battle of Chile is not merely a work of objective documentary; Guzmán is an activist and part of the popular struggle that he himself meticulously recorded across the years. The movement of his camera, the emphasis that he gives to his interviewees, the frenzy he captures of a country going broke and being cracked open, the hope of a people who fought and were in solidarity with one another, the sorrow of the people who lost their family and friends, are all keenly registered by this monumental work. Everything is inside Guzmán – a gaze that observed an initial failed coup d’état, the scarcity of basic food and resources, and the halt of the Chilean mines. Guzmán also knew that something definitive was bound to happen but stuck to his task of capturing a country trying overcome all those difficulties – until the final coup d’état. “El poder popular” (“Popular Power”), the third part of the documentary, could be seen as a practical guide to resistance, the ultimate handbook to popular solidarity and activism. It is also a reminder that beyond the massacres, the torture, the muzzling, was a never-ending hope of a country that once fought for a dream.
In my mind, what remains is the shocking image of a cameraman being shot by the Chilean military. Very few knew, at that time, the extent of Pinochet’s brutality but something was clear – the ruler was about to declare the death of freedom and the art of living, as Godard once noted (3). But Guzmán has given humanity a testament to life and resistance in our postmodern times of indifference and indolence.
- Jorge Ruffinelli, “Conversaciones con Patricio Guzmán”: http://www.patricioguzman.com/index.php?page=entrevista&aid=8.
- Guzmán in Andrea Meyer, “Shooting Revolutions with Chile’s Patricio Guzman”, Indiewire 21 September 1998: http://www.indiewire.com/article/shooting_revolutions_with_chiles_patricio_guzman.
- See Godard’s Je vous salue, Sarajevo (1993).
La batalla de Chile/The Battle of Chile (1975-78 262 mins)
Prod: Chris Marker Dir: Patricio Guzmán Scr: Patricio Guzmán, in collaboration with Pedro Chaskel, Jose Bartolome, Julio Garcia Espinosa, Federico Elton, Marta Harnecker, Chris Marker Ed: Pedro Chaskel Phot: Jorge Müller Silva Sound: Bernardo Menz