Sometimes a film is more than a film — it’s a scar of history, a sociopolitical action to stand beside or against lobbed explosives, assassinations, state-spewed agitprop, and face-to-gun-muzzle street protests. Unquestionably one of the most riveting and vital historical documents ever put on celluloid, Patricio Guzmán’s 1975–79 guerrilla epic The Battle of Chile has the galvanic charge of a tragic catastrophe happening in real time, a human rupture in which the film is a participant, not merely an observer. Newly restored and rereleased in sync with the golden anniversary of its signature events, the movie is an evergreen historical grenade every high schooler should be made to see, but it also feels especially relevant today, in this fiery season of ascending middle-class fascism.
We reflexively think of insurrections as being fueled by righteous peasant rage or pure militarist greed, but what happened in Chile in the early ’70s is actually a more common, if often semi-hidden, power-clash paradigm. It feels like a bizarro-world scenario, in which a squarely elected and overtly Marxist people-power government is successfully installed, wrests control of the starving nation’s major industries and resources from multinational corporations, and is therein confronted by an overt and covert insurrection led by business owners, bankers, and CIA-guided military. The first part of Guzmán’s film isn’t called The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie for nothing. Salvador Allende was elected in 1970 and was so clearly his native working class’s champion that the country’s moneyed sectors and international corporate interests quickly mobilized against him; in less than three years the capital city was occupied by the army, the president’s palace was bombed, Allende was dead (judged years later to be a last-minute suicide), and General Augusto Pinochet was installed as dictator in perpetuum.
Guzmán and his crew were there for all of it, 16 mm cameras on their shoulders. The first two sections (part two is simply The Coup d’Etat) that make up The Battle of Chile’s trilogy cover the Allende years’ turmoil — including an initial failed coup attempt — and the September 11 coup d’etat in granular and stupefying detail. (The third part, “Popular Power,” looks at the build-up period through the workers’ eyes.) With interviews of people on the streets of Santiago (all of whom know the coup is coming; many are delighted) and documentation of speeches, meetings, parades, mob violence, and, finally, full-on military deployment, the film weaves a startlingly coherent, by-the-numbers portrait of how a society sharply divided by wealth shatters itself and becomes a totalitarian state. If you ever want to chart the logistics of how it can happen, Guzmán gives you the graph paper and the data points. Amid the fraying social fabric, Guzmán and his team were free to film, but of course they were also free to be shot — part one ends, famously, with a soldier taking aim at the camera and gunning down Argentine photojournalist Leonardo Henrichsen as he was filming. (Guzmán’s main cameraperson, Jorge Müller Silva, along with his girlfriend/fellow activist, Carmen Bueno, was tortured and “disappeared” by Pinochet’s death squads the next year.)
It’s documentary filmmaking as open combat. But for those of us watching the film, the cold sociopolitical equations in play are so obvious, so textbook, so logical, it becomes hard to believe that the class war fueling them, in Chile and almost everywhere else, could ever successfully be obscured and masked by state and corporate propaganda. But of course, it is, routinely. For the owners and the affluent, obscurantism isn’t even an issue, as authoritarianism is often a conscious choice, made with clear cost-benefit calculations in mind.
Guzmán has confronted a grim kernel of social truth ever since: The fact that a sizable chunk of his countrymen and -women backed Pinochet and tacitly approved of the years of torture and killings, establishing a maddening climate of don’t ask/don’t tell. For more than 50 defiant years, and with dozens of films, Guzmán has been the country’s one-man Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Battle trilogy was only the beginning for him, and maybe the most stirring way to watch this historical action painting is as the trial by fire that forged the filmmaker’s lifetime commitment to exposing and analyzing what happened, why it happened, and what’s happened since. There really isn’t a case in all of film history to compare to his single-minded body of work, or his obdurate resistance to letting cultural time bury the facts.
In fact, the actual start of Guzmán’s Sisyphean journey has just emerged from the archives, perhaps not coincidentally: The First Year (1971), just released by Icarus Films for the first time in the U.S., jumps right on Allende’s election, which for the nation’s proles and peasants seemed like a gift from heaven. A 29-year-old film school grad with only a few shorts to his name, Guzmán is in pure celebratory mode, characterizing Allende’s reclaiming of Chile’s resource industries as “reconquest,” and letting Mapuche indigenes, miners, steel workers, and textile workers exult in the knowledge that, for once, state power was acting on their behalf.
It was not to last, of course, and Guzmán knew it even then, acknowledging in that inaugural film how the country’s affluent bourgeoisie were already gathering in revolt, and also that the U.S. was acting, supposedly covertly, to subvert Allende’s rule. (The film’s purity of perspective caught the attention of radical French New Wave provocateur Chris Marker, who, with French voiceover added, had it shown in France; it still bears his collective “SLON” — “Society for launching new works” — moniker.) The film is a sure-footed first strike in Guzmán’s activist-moviemaking campaign, but today it burns with retrospective rage and mourning — we know what’s coming, and we know it because Guzmán has dedicated his long career to telling the world ever since.
Once the ’73 coup had settled into a dissent-intolerant military junta, Guzmán was arrested and held for weeks in the same soccer stadium where he saw Chile play the World Cup when he was a kid. He never divulged the location of the film cans that held The Battle of Chile, and fled as soon as he was released, landing in Cuba, then Spain and France. The editing commenced, and The Battle of Chile came to global theaters a few years later, an immersive telegram from the darkness on the edge of fading ’60s idealism. It struck like lightning out of nowhere — Pauline Kael’s much-quoted hosanna of a New Yorker review observed that “great films rarely arrive as unheralded.” In the decades afterward, Guzmán dabbled in fiction film, but always returned to Chile: the fate of Allende, the nagging thought of what might have been, and the country’s harrowing plight of 17 years under Pinochet. Each film has come at the crisis from a different angle: En Nombre de Dios (1987) vets the Chilean Catholic church’s battles with the military government, while Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997) chronicles Guzmán’s own return during Pinochet’s twilight years to show The Battle of Chile to a new generation of Chilean schoolchildren, who, having been taught a mythical version of 1973, see their ideas about their own country turned inside out.
The Pinochet Case (2001) came next. Guzmán’s tripartite epic might be this doc’s necessary prerequisite, so non-Chileans (or too-young Chileans) can get a sense of what’s at stake in what Guzmán chronicles: the 1998 legal machinations, in Spain, England, and, finally Chile, to bring the arrested, retired dictator to trial for human rights violations. Guzmán, shooting now in sober, clean digital video, tracks the case from Madrid prosecutor Carlos Castresana’s discovery of an international-culpability loophole in Spanish law enabling him to charge Pinochet, through, finally, to Pinochet’s safe landing in his homeland, at which point the sleepwalking Chilean judicial system suddenly sat up and smelled the carrion.
A coda in every sense, The Pinochet Case splits time between the regime’s talking-head survivors (as in Shoah, the trauma-savvy victims smile a good deal so many years after the fact, even when describing, as one woman does, how during a post-electroshock sexual assault she was “not in any kind of condition for a rape”) and a minute-by-minute account of the British court’s extradition chess game. Guzmán lobs in the occasional Molotov: a forensic researcher calmly counting the vertebrae while assembling exhumed bones, appalling archival footage of Pinochet’s posh house arrest as Margaret Thatcher visits (“Five months is a long time to be confined,” she tells him sympathetically, “… in a house.”), a climactic glimpse of a new Allende statue in Santiago garnering traumatized squints. The charges piled up on Pinochet for a few years, but he died, in 2006, before ever seeing a courtroom. Guzmán, his argument more with Chile than any one homicidal despot, has pressed on.
His post-Pinochet films have grown lyrical and ruminative, but hardly less outraged. Nostalgia for the Light (2010) begins by philosophizing about time — how everything, even light, even this, is in the past — but then detours to speculating about how time has treated the ghost-town-turned-concentration-camp of Chacabuco, its ex-prisoners, the dumped bones of disappeared Pinochet victims, and the tough old women who still scour the Atacama Desert plateau on foot for the body parts. The Pearl Button (2015) muses on the connections between Chile’s maritime geography and its history of “disappearings,” from the decimated tribes of Tierra del Fuego during the colonialist era to the corpse disposals under Pinochet. Likewise, The Cordillera of Dreams (2019) begins by contemplating the endless run of the Andes, which comprise a timeless wall separating Chile from the world, and then toggles toward the present state of the nation — willfully forgetting the Pinochet regime and hobbling still under its neoliberal economic policies. A spontaneous pandemic song of hope, shot when Guzmán was approaching 80, My Imaginary Country (2022), was occasioned by Chile’s newest upheaval: the massive and crazy-violent generational protests that erupted in 2019 in response to all aspects of lingering Pinochetism and burned for three years, climaxing with the writing of a new Constitution.
The Battle of Chile is imperative, but look at all the films as a single, subjective work — a scab-knuckle New Left À la recherche du temps perdu — and Guzmán emerges as arguably the most important, and unarguably the most resolute, political filmmaker of all time. For him, cinema is memory, in a human modernity where memory is a beleaguered and disrespected quantity. Call it “recent history” and you’ll get even fewer likes. As a people, we much prefer to shrug off the burden of remembering all of the political crimes and malfeasant wars and acts of flamboyant corruption, going back decades or even just a few years ago, in favor of attending to our entertainment dystopia’s mandated Now, accessible every microsecond of every day. Who in today’s virtualized funscape has room in their fraught hearts and minds for recalling the invasion of Iraq? Guantanamo? Reagan-era Central America? The inferno of Southeast Asia under Johnson and Nixon? Gore Vidal used to call it the United States of Amnesia, but it’s hardly only an American phenomenon. Even European voters have been choosing to forget what fascist authoritarianism does when you conjure it out of the pit. Thanks to Guzmán’s unerring gaze, Chile might be the classic case study of a society self-crucified by conscientious forgetfulness. As folk singer Phil Ochs put it – remember him? – “There but for fortune go you and I.” ❖
Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
The Battle of Chile opens Friday, September 8, at BAM Rose Cinemas.
Additionally, Anthology Film Archives will premiere Guzmán’s first feature-length film, from 1972, The First Year, and will also screen Salvador Allende (2004).
The IFC Center will host screenings of Guzmán’s four most recent films: Nostalgia for the Light (2010), The Pearl Button (2015), The Cordillera of Dreams (2019), and last year’s My Imaginary Country.