Film

Patricio Guzmán: The Filmmaker Who Won’t Let Chile Forget Its Dictatorship

In the summer of 1973, a team of idealistic young amateur filmmakers set out to document the lead up to the Chilean midterm elections. Armed with little more than a handheld camera and a dream, they were unaware that they were actually recording pivotal moments in world history.

The country was heavily divided between supporters and detractors of Salvador Allende, the world’s first democratically elected socialist president. Elected in 1971 with 36% of the vote, his presidency was subject to a botched coup attempt even before he was sworn into office. Since then, previously divided opposition parties had united against him. Their midterm campaign focused on getting Allende’s share of the electorate below 35% or less, which would allow them to pass a congressional vote of no confidence to remove him from the presidency.

Led by Patricio Guzmán, these filmmakers interviewed random people on the street, people stuck in traffic jams, people in their homes, documented political rallies, strikes, protests, street violence, and much more. In the midterms, Allende’s share of the vote increased to 42%. The opposition, having failed to oust him democratically, began agitating for a military coup. The crew continued filming all the way through the infamous, long-awaited coup of 11 September, 1973, in which Allende died and Augusto Pinochet was installed as dictator. As the new military dictatorship began purging the country of political opposition, Guzmán and his team fled the country, smuggling their footage with them. Two years later, they released the seminal documentary The Battle of Chile (1975).

Patricio Guzmán / Image: Wikimedia Commons

After the dictatorship ended in 1991, Guzmán returned from exile to find his country in the midst of a struggle with its very recent past. The new democratic government called for ‘reconciliation’ between the dictatorship’s 40,000 victims and their torturers, jailers, and murderers, denying them any hope of justice. Guzmán also encountered an entire generation of young Chileans who had never known anything but the dictatorship; they had been taught its narrative in schools and informed of its virtues in their day to day lives, while contrary media, such as The Battle of Chile itself, had been banned.

Thus began a righteous obsession. Guzmán’s work since has been almost entirely concerned with the dictatorship and its legacy. While the government, the military, and many Chileans themselves are happy to downplay or forget the most painful parts of their past, he does everything in his power to promote remembrance.

His first film after returning home was Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997). ‘Obstinate’ means ‘stubborn’, which aptly communicates the way the dictatorship was remembered at the time. The film’s premise is simple: it follows Guzmán as he shows The Battle of Chile, with its confronting and raw black-and-white scenes that include footage of the coup, around the country. This results in one of the most poignant moments ever captured on film: a group of university students who grew up during the dictatorship are completely stunned upon finally seeing the full extent of what really happened for the first time:

From there, he went on to make The Pinochet Case (2001), which documented abortive attempts to bring the dictator to justice. Five years later, Pinochet died under house arrest aged 91, having never even stood trial for his long list of crimes. Instead, he was honoured by a funeral with full military honours amidst a rally of thousands of mourning supporters. It seemed that Chile was not only forgetting the crimes of the dictatorship, but embracing them.

Guzmán, of course, had to continue on. After Salvador Allende (2004), another objective-style documentary about the country’s late president, he moved on to a more subjective, poetic style. This style aims less to inform people of the now well-established historical facts and more to inspire thought and emotion. Above all, though, it invites identification with the victims of the dictatorship and their loved ones, many hundreds of thousands of whom still live with its scars.

In Nostalgia for the Light (2010), a winner of dozens upon dozens of international prizes, Guzmán ventures to the Atacama Desert of Chile, where astronomers use some of the world’s most important observatories to search the stars for everything from supernovas to extraterrestrial life. At the same time, that very desert is combed by families of those murdered by the Pinochet dictatorship, hoping to find the remains of their loved ones and finally put them to rest. In documenting the concurrent searches taking place in this remote region, Guzmán shows that even the grandest questions of the cosmos can seem insignificant in the face of the basic human need for closure. It’s difficult not to be moved.

Families of disappeared people protest with photos of their loved ones. The text reads ‘Where are They?’ / Image: Wikimedia Commons

Most recently, Guzmán released The Pearl Button (2015), a film that tells the shocking story of the brutal historical violence against Chile’s Indigenous peoples, illustrating similarities between it and the violence of the Pinochet dictatorship. The name of the film comes from Guzmán’s poetic link between the two: an Indigenous man who was sold to an English explorer in exchange for a pearl button, and a similar button found attached to a rusty, decades-old piece of railway line in the sea; all that remains of an unknown person that had once been tied to it and thrown into the ocean from a helicopter to drown. The link is tenuous, but that’s okay, as the film aims not to form an objective connection, but rather invites us to reflect on repeating cycles of violence and whether we can break them.

At 77, Guzmán has still shown no indication that he’s ready to let Chile forget. As of now, he’s released ten films linked to the dictatorship, all somehow offering a refreshing take on similar themes. The master of memory isn’t going to forget to remind us of the past anytime soon.


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