Memory Plays


In 1978, the then tiny Film Forum hosted the U.S. premiere of Patricio Guzmán’s epic documentary, The Battle of Chile. Filmed during the year leading up to the right-wing coup that destroyed Salvador Allende’s democratically elected socialist government and edited in Cuba from 20 hours of uncut footage that Guzmán managed to have smuggled out of Chile while he himself was “detained” by Pinochet’s military junta, The Battle of Chile had won worldwide acclaim before it showed up in New York.

The delayed U.S. release worked to the film’s advantage. By 1978, the C.I.A.’s direct involvement in the destabilization of Allende’s government had been exposed in a Senate investigative report and reported in mainstream media, including the Times. Thus The Battle of Chile was not a film about an obscure skirmish in a distant Latin American country; it was about a military coup made possible by U.S. taxpayer dollars.

Film Forum is marking the 25th anniversary of the September 11 coup with a double bill of The Battle of Chile, Part 2 and Chile, Obstinate Memory, the film Guzmán made in 1996 when he returned to his homeland to show The Battle of Chile for the first time.

Shot in black-and-white with an agile handheld camera that’s in the right place at the right time so often it seems to have choreographed the events it merely recorded, The Battle of Chile, Part 2 opens in June of 1973 with an aborted coup by a breakaway faction of the military and ends a scarce three months later with an all-out aerial bombardment of the presidential palace (during which Allende is killed) and that same day’s television broadcast of Pinochet’s first address to the nation. It’s not simply hindsight that gives the film its tragic dimension from start to finish. It’s Guzmán’s awareness, as well as that of almost everyone in the film including Allende himself, that a socialist revolution without bloodshed is impossible, that the ideals of the working-class left will almost surely be crushed by the military strength of the right.

The film opens with the unnerving sound of helicopters and sporadic gunfire. Small groups of people are fleeing through the streets of Santiago from the tanks that are attacking the palace. Then comes the extraordinary sequence in which a cameraman films his own murder, focusing on a group of soldiers as one of them takes aim and fires directly at the lens. The soldiers disappear as the camera swings wildly, catching a confused glimpse of sky and clouds before the image goes black. It happens so quickly—the death of a man we never see because he’s behind the camera, acting as our eyes—that we only comprehend it after the fact.

The sequence was not filmed by Jorge Muller, Guzmán’s extraordinary cinematographer, but by an Argentinian TV cameraman. But Guzmán must have found it irresistible, not only because of its intrinsic power, but because it also presaged Muller’s own death. (The only member of Guzmán’s small filmmaking collective not to escape from Chile, Muller was interned in one of Pinochet’s torture camps and killed in 1974.)

Moving from Santiago to rural factories, from parliamentary negotiations to military parades (Pinochet’s clenched fist belies his affable smile), from demonstrations to worker debates, Guzmán charts the dream of socialism as it collapses, torn apart by divisions within the left even as it’s crushed by the right. Allende was in an impossible position from the beginning of his three-year presidency. Although he was elected by a majority of voters, his Popular Unity party never controlled the congress. Forced to make an alliance with the supposedly centrist, but increasingly right-leaning, Christian Democrats, Allende had to act as a constitutionalist. But according to the constitution, it was illegal for him to arm the workers against the military, even when it was apparent to everyone that a military coup was imminent. When Pinochet seized power, he had, of course, no problem suspending the constitution “to root out the cancer of communism.”

Guzmán is clearly on the side of the working class. But if The Battle of Chile is shot in a way that makes us empathize with the workers’ doomed struggle (it plays like a horror film), the blanketing voice-over analyzes the images as a blueprint for failure. The voice-over seems even more problematic than it did 20 years ago—not because the rhetoric is Marxist-Leninist, but because the analysis is too reductive to handle the complexity of what we see on the screen.

Compared to The Battle of Chile, Chile, Obstinate Memory is a slight although extremely moving film. Guzmán shows the reactions of all kinds of people—those who lived the dream of socialism and its failure, teenagers who have only a vague notion of the Allende period—to seeing The Battle of Chile for the first time. The responses are all over the map: a woman who admits that she welcomed the coup but realized two days later how wrong she’d been; a woman whose husband died in the bombing of the presidential palace nevertheless describes the Allende period as “the happiest 1000 days of my life”; a political activist turned university professor tries to put together a theory of memory, history, and trauma. It’s the theory that Guzmán is after, as well. This time, he attempts to construct it out of the experiences of the people we see on the screen. But it doesn’t come together. In the end what’s most vivid are the faces of people on the street when they hear the Popular Unity anthem played by a marching band for the first time in over 20 years. The mix of surprise and anger, embarrassment and guilt, ruefulness and pride have to be seen to be believed.

John Irving’s 1989 bestseller, A Prayer for Owen Meany, is a coming-of-age saga set during the period of the war in Vietnam. Irving examines big issues of God, country, and personal responsibility from the perspective of Owen Meany, whose outsider position—he’s less than four feet tall—fuels his intensely personal quest for meaning. Owen Meany never settles for a received idea, whether from church or state, left or right.

With typical Hollywood antipathy toward politics and history, Simon Birch—the film “suggested” by the novel Irving sold to Disney—expunges Vietnam from the narrative. (After reading the screen adaptation, Irving refused to allow his hero’s name to be used in the film.) Director Mark Steven Johnson, who also scripted, sets Simon Birch in generic small-town U.S.A. at some vague time in the past. We know it’s the past because the film opens with Jim Carrey, who plays Simon’s best friend Joe now grown up, musing at Simon’s grave: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a cracked voice… because he’s the reason I believe in God.” (I guess Irving had no choice, since he pocketed Disney’s money, but to let them use a couple of his good lines.) After that we’re in glowingly lit flashback. It’s Gump-a-la-la-Land—or so the folk at Disney’s Hollywood Pictures must have hoped.

That Simon Birch is not as maudlin as it might have been is largely due to the intensely thoughtful, prickly performance of 11-year-old Ian Michael Smith, who plays Simon. Smith has Morquio syndrome, an enzyme-deficiency disease that causes dwarfism along with many painful bodily disorders. But it’s not Smith’s appearance that makes him such a compelling screen presence. It’s his awareness of the split between his mind and his body and his ability to transcend his limitations by moving the film into a space that’s energized more by brain power than physicality.