On 11 September 1973 the democratically elected government of Chile was overthrown by the army under General Augusto Pinochet. It is generally supposed that the coup was engineered by the CIA who were alarmed by the president Salvador Allende’s left-wing politics.
Two significant events followed: the forced disappearance and murder of Pincochet’s political opponents by the junta and the imposition of extreme free-market libertarian ideas, the brainchild of Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economics. The brutality of the regime convulsed Chile for years.
The economic legacy is still being felt, especially in the UK. Friedman’s ideas inspired Margaret Thatcher to embark on the economic reforms driven through by her government. Those ideas are driving the current British government, whose clear view is that society should be completely subservient to business, profits and shareholders. They are all that matters.
Chilean history through the prism of cinema
Patricio Guzmán is a documentary maker. Born in 1941, he has made around two dozen films about what happened to his country after Pinochet seized power. He went into exile, as did many of his compatriots, moving to France where he still lives. He is driven by the importance of memory and the need to bear witness to events. Five of his films in particular document his response to the events that overwhelmed his homeland.
The Battle of Chile
Guzmán’s The Battle of Chile has been described as “breath-taking documentary filmmaking on a truly epic scale: a portrait of a country falling apart, in real time.” After Allende was elected, Guzmán had travelled back to Chile from his film studies in Europe with a huge quantity of film and a determination to record the history he felt was being made. The three part work that resulted tells the story of the Allende presidency, the coup and the aftermath.
Many of the film’s images have become standard references to the events that took place. He filmed different groups from either side of the political divide talking about the state of the country under Allende, those agitating for the overthrow of democracy, air force jets attacking the presidential palace, tanks on the streets, people running for cover. He had to escape arrest and smuggle the footage out as the junta tightened its grip.
The Chile quartet
Guzmán fled back to Europe but returned in 2010 to look at the country afresh. The result is four more films, Nostalgia for the Light, The Pearl Button, The Cordillera of Dreams and My Imaginary Country. Each reflects his view of the importance of memory to his homeland and of placing what happened on the record.
Nostalgia for the Light is set in the Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth. The altitude and clear air means it’s perfect for astronomy. It’s also perfect for preserving the remains of Pinochet’s victims who were dumped there after their deaths. Guzmán contrasts the search for life in outer space with the families of those who disappeared and who scour the desert for evidence of their loved ones’ existence.
In The Pearl Button, Guzmán travels to Patagonia. There he considers the fate of the indigenous people who have disappeared from that part of Chile and again ponders the fate of those that Pinochet removed from the face of the earth.
In The Cordillera of Dreams he uses the Andes mountains as a device, framing them as silent witnesses to what happened and wondering why human beings are so keen to destabilise and destroy.
Finally, in My Imaginary Country, he looks at what is taking place in Chile now and the way the young, especially young women, are determined to be constructive agents for change.
Pablo Larraín takes a different approach. Born in 1976, he grew up during the worst of the dictatorship. In 1988, when he was 12, Pinochet was forced by international pressure to call a vote on a new constitution which he hoped would entrench his power. Larraín’s multi award-winning Pinochet trilogy explores life in the country during those years, reflecting the callous brutality of dictatorship and the resilience of a country that ultimately rejected it.
Tony Manero is set in Santiago during the dictatorship. The film depicts the decadence, violence, and darkness of the era through its central character who lacks all scruples. Post Mortem is set during the coup itself. The film follows a civil servant who has to deal with the aftermath of the violence while facing pressure from the military to hide the true causes of death of the victims. In contrast, No, set in 1988, shows the country finding the courage to reject Pinochet and his authoritarianism and begin a return to democracy.
Cinema or truth?
To see these films is of course to get a very particular view why 9/11 1973 was so important. Like all films, they are the director’s version of events so they must carry that health warning. No-one but the director knows what was left out.
In addition none of them examined the economic changes that followed the Pinochet coup, which are having a much greater impact globally than the politics. That’s a subject for another filmmaker – someone with the same forensic approach as Inside Job, Charles Ferguson’s Oscar winning dissection of the 2008 financial crisis.
Nevertheless as Jean-Luc Godard said, “The cinema is truth, 24 frames-per-second.” These films by Guzmán and Larraín are important. They tell Chile’s story of what they went through during those bitter years and provide a vital record which the wider world needs to know. They also offer a source of optimism for anyone under the sway of ruthless authoritarianism that oppressors can be removed in due course.
“Small earthquake in Chile. Not many dead.”
There is a story that while Claud Cockburn was a sub editor on The Times, he once won a competition between his colleagues for the dullest headline in the paper: “Small earthquake in Chile. Not many dead.” As Chile embarks on life under Gabriel Boric, another democratically elected president with left-wing views, we should pay close attention in case of aftershocks.