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New Guzman Collection Tells Chile's Story

By Cynthia Close

Patricio Guzmán: A Country's Journey, Five Films
Released by Icarus Films, September 2015
8-DVD Boxed Set Includes:
Battle of Chile: Part One, 1975, Part Two, 1976, Part Three, 1978, 270 minutes
Chile, Obstinate Memory, 1997, 58 minutes
The Pinochet Case, 2001, 110 minutes
Salvador Allende, 2004, 102 minutes
Nostalgia for the Light, 2011, 65 minutes

From Patricio Guzman's 'Nostalgia for the Light' (2011). Courtesy of Icarus Films

"A country without documentary films is like a family without a photo album."

This quote by Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán is the first thing you see when going on his website—not surprising coming from a filmmaker whose work is synonymous with the country of his birth. What is surprising is that except for his childhood in Santiago and the time he has spent filming in the country that has been the focus of the majority of his life's work, he has lived elsewhere, choosing self-imposed exile in Cuba, Spain or France, where he now lives. He lists his nationality as Chilean and Spanish. This ability to be deeply inside your subject, while simultaneously maintaining a certain distance, is ideal for a documentary filmmaker and clearly has been an asset to Guzmán, one of the world's most respected documentarians.

In the 1960s he studied theater, history and philosophy at the University of Chile, as well as film at the Catholic University of Chile. Then from 1966 to 1969 he went to Spain to study film in Madrid, where he graduated in 1970 from the Official School of Cinematography with a diploma as "Director-Filmmaker." It was politics that drew him back to Chile in 1971, where, at age 30, he shot The First Year, a filmed record of President Salvador Allende's inaugural year in office.

While this first documentary is not included in Icarus Films' new boxed set, Patricio Guzmán: A Country's Journey, Five Films, it was a prelude for Salvador Allende, Guzman's 2004 definitive portrait of the Chilean leader, which is part of this package. The film opens with a meditation on a few personal objects, a pair of Allende's smashed glasses, fragments, a few remains that were found in the wake of the bombing of the Santiago-based presidential palace La Moneda, in the military coup d'état on September 11, 1973. The film is a mix of biography, homage and political exposé. The footage of then President Nixon vowing to crush Allende, giving thinly veiled instructions to the CIA to have him "taken out," is devastating. It is a clear indictment of American foreign policy then, when the US was still "in the fog" of the Cold War. Nixon saw Allende's brand of "democratic socialism," combined with his massive populist support, as a danger to American capitalist interests in the region. He was determined to crush Allende by any means possible. It is no mystery why Guzmán's films were not widely available in the United States when they were originally released, but with the collection from Icarus Films, we can now revisit these events, which have broad implications regarding America's meddling in Latin American politics. However, don't mistake these films to be some sort of diatribe by a political hack. America's complicit role in Allende's fall from power was just part of a very complex picture, and like a cubist painting, Guzmán first deconstructs, then assembles all the fractured pieces and creates a whole where we can see the varied perspectives from their specific vantage points.

The Battle of Chile, a three-part, four-and-a-half-hour film shot in black and white and on 16mm in the midst of social and political unrest, is Guzmán's best known and most widely acclaimed film. It was declared "one of the ten best political documentary films in the world" by Cineaste. Using a direct cinema style, Guzmán and his team, consisting of Federico Elton, Bernardo Menz, José Pino, Angelina Vázquez and cinematographer Jorge Muller, began shooting eight months before the military coup that ended on September 11, 1973, with Allende's suicide and Augusto Pinochet's disastrous rise to power. The film ultimately took four years to edit. The team had no idea when they started that the sheer velocity of ongoing events would sweep them up as they filmed history.

It is difficult to imagine how one might direct filming in such confusing and volatile circumstances. Guzmán and his team conceived of The Battle of Chile in terms of a class struggle, illuminating all the elements motivating the political expressions of both the Right and the Left. The events are captured in long takes and edited chronologically. Guzmán, heard but not seen in the midst of the action as the ever-present interviewer of the people on the street, acts as observer and provocateur, but it is a necessary intervention. Shortly after September 11, Guzmán was arrested and sent to the National Stadium, the biggest detention center in Santiago, where he spent two weeks. Meanwhile, his footage—more than 100 cans consisting of 14,000 meters of film—was hidden at his uncle's house. With the help of the Swedish Embassy, the film materials were smuggled out of the country by ship and they arrived safely in Sweden. Guzmán was released and he went into exile when he was invited by the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry to complete his film in their facility.

There are two iconic images in The Battle of Chile that have served as leitmotifs for Guzmán—the rhythmic meditations on political violence and the very notion of humanity. One is the killing of Leonardo Henricksen, a Swedish-Argentinian journalist and cameraman who filmed his own murder at the hands a renegade Chilean army regiment during the coup. The other is the bombing of La Moneda, the presidential headquarters where Allendé remained, like a captain going down with his ship, as black smoke billowed from the windows and fire spread, destroying the democratically elected government in its wake.

From Patricio Guzman's 'Chile, Obstinate Memory' (1997). Courtesy of Icarus Films

In Chile, Obstinate Memory, 23 years have passed since the making of The Battle of Chile. This interim includes the 17 horrific years under the dictatorship of Pinochet, when over 200,000 people went into exile, or like Jorge Muller, Guzmán's cameraman, were either tortured, killed or "disappeared." His body has never been found. Here, the filmmaker's subject is amnesia and the effects of rewriting history. The subjects shown in this film have just viewed The Battle of Chile, many for the first time as the film had never been publically shown in Chile. Some, who were not even born when the events happened, had not heard of the film. Audiences were deeply moved and emotionally affected; some were in denial; others cried.

Chile, Obstinate Memory, in conjunction with the bonus film, Filming Obstinately, Meeting Patricio Guzman (2014) by Boris Nicot, make for a useful educational package. In both, we get a well-rounded picture of Guzmán the man and Guzmán the filmmaker, as well as his plans for his work-in-progress, The Pearl Button (2015), which opened in New York October 23 through Kino Lorber.

The legal lessons learned in The Pinochet Case (2001) could stand as a model in international law. Again, Guzmán moves fluidly back and forth in time. We watch in rapt attention as those individuals in dogged pursuit of General Augusto Pinochet rely on exhaustive records, some the result of forensic anthropology and archeology combined with haunting testimony to bring a legal case against the Chilean dictator before and after his arrest in London in 1998. Rarely has law been as riveting as in this film. While Pinochet was indicted and charged with many human rights violations, he ultimately died in a military hospital in Santiago, Chile, in December 2006 without ever having been convicted.

In Nostalgia for the Light (2011) we realize Guzmán is first an artist, a visual poet and a philosopher whose medium is film and his subjects, while often steeped in the politics of his Chilean past, are just as frequently about the future and more broadly about essentials, like what it means to be human. It is this film whose contemplative, aesthetic beauty nearly took my breath away. The opening shots of cranking gears of the giant telescopes set in Chile's remote Atacama Desert were like an extraterrestrial ballet, and I felt myself being lured by them to consider life's most difficult questions: Who are we, where are we in the universe and where are we going? This film aired on PBS' POV series in 2012 and won the 2011 IDA Documentary Award for Best Feature.

In addition to the films in the boxed set, a 24-page booklet is included, with a new essay by film scholar José Miguel Palacios, completing a collection worthy of contemplation and discussion for years to come.


Cynthia Close is the former president of Documentary Educational Resources. She currently resides in Burlington, Vermont, where she consults on the business of film and serves on the advisory board of the Vermont International Film Festival.