domingo, 24 de abril de 2011

The Battle of Chile

The Battle of Chile [La batalla de Chile] (Icarus Films DVD, 2009)
Directed by Patricio Guzmán
Chile-Cuba-France, 1975, 1976 and 1978
In Spanish with English subtitles

All too aware that many of my fellow bloggers would much rather hype multiple shitty film adaptations of 19th and 20th century British novels than talk about any documentary on a Latin American topic, I'd still like to spend a few moments here today in honor of Patricio Guzmán's nearly four and a half hour long The Battle of Chile (note: this expansive four-DVD set also includes a separate disc dedicated to Guzmán's hour-long 1997 doc Chile, Obstinate Memory, a powerful look at memory in that country some 25 years after the events depicted in this, his signature work).  Whether you share Guzmán's obvious pro-Allende sympathies or not, this remarkable film--shot in democratic Chile in the year leading up to the Pinochet coup on September 11, 1973 and finished in exile abroad after the director had to flee the country for his own safety--offers up a startling look at a country on the brink of civil war.  The footage is fantastic, the images often wrenching.  In part one's "The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie," for example, an hour and a half of man and woman on the street interviews about the paralyzing food shortages, the labor and transit strikes, and the massive demonstrations for and against the socialist Allende concludes with the unforgettable scene of an Argentinean cameraman inadvertently filming his own death--shot to death on camera, cowardly and with deliberation, by a Chilean army officer participating in a preliminary coup attempt against Allende in late June. In part two's "The Coup d'État," the democratically-elected president Allende is literally bombed out of office with the military's treasonous daytime attack on the presidential palace in the heart of Santiago.  Part three's "The Power of the People," while perhaps lacking a single visual image quite as powerful as those that close the preceding segments, compensates by focusing on the mass rallies bringing hundreds of thousands of Allende supporters to the streets and the behind the scenes strategy debates of those on the left intent on bringing Allende's workers' revolution to the masses. While long and occasionally repetitive in its depiction of the strife that was tearing Chile apart, The Battle of Chile struck me as a raw but staggering achievement in its framing of a situation in which people from both sides were openly confiding that a civil war would likely be the only way to resolve the political stalemate.  Riveting.  (

The Battle of Chile's crew (from left to right): Jorge Müller Silva (director of photography), Patricio Guzmán (director), Federico Elton (production manager), José Bartolomé (assistant director), Bernardo Menz (sound).

 In the 1996 novel Distant Star, which alludes to Chile's transition from the troubled democratic state of Allende to the murderous sponsor of state terrorism it became under Pinochet, one of Roberto Bolaño's characters opines that "it seems to me that we are entering into the world championship of ugliness and brutality" ("me parece que estamos entrando en el campeonato mundial de la fealdad y la brutalidad").  Lending a real-life exclamation point to this fictional pronouncement, I feel it important to note that The Battle of Chile cameraman Jorge Müller pictured above was eventually detained and then "disappeared" by the military junta led by Pinochet and supported by the Nixon White House.  RIP.

8 comentarios:

  1. I would be interested to see Chile, Obstinate Memory but the rest sounds interesting too. It sounds like a very valuable testimony of a tormented chapter in the history of Chile and I doubt many could get that kind of footage. I do occasionally have problems watching this type of documentary, be it on film or photos. Sitting at home and sheltered and watching something like this...
    No movie can ever convey what a documentary conveys. I had to realize this not long ago when I watched and reviewed Jarman's War Requiem and there was some original footage of many wars that I knew only from movies. One could really tell the difference. These people were really shot and wounded... No CGI or fake blood. Sorry for a somewhat lenghty comment.

  2. *Caroline: While I realize that trying to get people to sit down and watch any four and a half hour movie is always going to be a tough sell, I really thought that The Battle of Chile delivered the goods. At the very least, I now have a much more vivid understanding of just how divided Chile was at the time--and a much more saddened sense of what Allende's loss meant to so many people (esp. the poor and the idealistic). Emotionally, it's tough to watch at times, though--so I understand your concerns. I actually saw Chile, Obstinate Memory several years ago, but I watched it again last week after viewing The Battle of Chile for the first time. It's also very powerful, of course, and particularly fascinating when seeing young students' reactions to a screening of The Battle of Chile that Guzmán brought with him. The earlier documentary wasn't allowed to be shown during the Pinochet years, and many of the young people who watched it were in tears after the screening. Thanks so much for your comment (I don't believe any comment is too lengthy myself, but I apologize for the length of my own reply). Cheers!

  3. Thanks to you I discovered a little book by Patricia Aufderheide called Documentary Film:A Very Short Introduction. It has a list with 100 important documentaries and Battle of Chile is of course among them. I just ordered it. I remember watching loads of great documentaries when I studied cultural anthropology. Some are classics but I forgot many of the titles. Hopefully I will find some of them in the book.

  4. Although four and a half hours of brutal violence does indeed sound like a rough time, you've also done a good job of conveying the power here. It's particularly appealing because I keep meaning to dip into some background material on the recent political upheaval in some of these South American countries whose literature holds such appeal (in particular Chile & Argentina). I can't guarantee I'll get to it very soon, but thanks for the recommendation nonetheless. :-)

  5. This sounds absolutely fascinating. Difficult, but fascinating. I will definitely have to look into this at some point.

  6. *Caroline: Thanks for sharing that little story--glad to hear it! And I look forward to seeing what you think of Guzmán's work some day. Apart from the historical and sociological angles which most appealed to me, it's apparently very highly regarded in documentary circles for its filmmaking as well.

    *Emily: While I'm super glad you appreciated the rec, I should clarify that the violent scenes that I mentioned are actually relatively few and far between--just potent in terms of their impact. Most of what makes the film emotionally difficult to watch is just knowing what came later and seeing how the benevolent "radical" Allende was basically crucified for democracy by supposedly democracy-loving right-wingers. That being said, I think The Battle of Chile would be perfect for what you'd like to get out it (contextualizing the history and lit of those times) if you're ever able to carve out time for it at some point--i.e. I got the sense that it would have taken several books on the topic to deliver the same vibe with the same urgency.

    *Amanda: "Difficult, but fascinating" is a great way to look at it. I think the documentary has a lot to offer, not least for framing the divide in Chile as a class/economic one in ways in which U.S. viewers may have little real sense of.

  7. Interesting commentary. I would love to watch this documentary. Sometimes I wonder what become of the individual military men who allow themselves to be used for this nefarious activities. Whether they actually do regret their acts later in life?

  8. *Nana: That's an interesting point and question you bring up. I think that sometimes the "common soldiers" do feel guilty, as evidenced by their willingness to speak out against their acts afterward or at least to be interviewed in regards to the circumstances they perceived at the time. I think the leaders rarely do the same, though. Thanks for your comments!