Filmmaker Patricio Guzmán and his team documented Chile’s Popular Unity government and the 1973 coup that destroyed it. Smuggled out of the country to be edited in exile, The Battle of Chile is an unforgettable record of an extraordinary historical moment.

The Chilean presidential palace, La Moneda, in flames as tanks fire at point-blank range as it was bombed by jets, as the armed forces and national police toppled the government of President Salvador Allende, on September 11, 1973. (UPI Color / Bettmann Archive / Getty Images)

On September 11, 1973, fifty years ago this year, the Chilean military overthrew the Unidad Popular government of Salvador Allende with support from the US government. The succeeding military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet would torture over forty thousand people, and more than three thousand were murdered or “disappeared.”

On an international scale, no filmmaker was as crucial to the task of documenting, remembering, and reimagining the first socialist government elected in the Americas and its violent dissolution as documentarian Patricio Guzmán. In 2012, he beautifully summarized his commitment to the memory and memorialization of Chile’s past: “I think that life is memory, everything is memory. There is no present time, and everything in life is remembering. I think memory encompasses all life, and all the mind.”

A Cinematic Giant

Guzmán is a giant of Latin American documentary cinema with a corpus of more than twenty films. His triptych The Battle of Chile: The Struggle of a People Without Arms (1975, 1977, 1979), about the political conflicts preceding the coup, or golpe, against Allende, is a classic example of what Argentinian filmmakers Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas christened Third Cinema. This was the Latin American filmmaking movement of the late 1960s and ’70s that sought to use cinema as a weapon to document reality and progressively transform it. From exile in Cuba and Europe, Guzmán continued to document resistance efforts against the Pinochet regime in films like In the Name of God (1987) and excavate the memory of Unidad Popular in Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997), The Pinochet Case (2001), and Salvador Allende (2004).

Patricio Guzmán is a giant of Latin American documentary cinema with a corpus of more than twenty films.

More recently, what I would designate as Guzmán’s Chilean “Border Trilogy” demonstrates a deep attunement to the environment and a turn from the politics of the exclusively human to a sense of the political that includes the more than human during this era of mass climate change. The poetic Nostalgia for the Light (2010), The Pearl Button (2015), and The Cordillera of Dreams (2019) are attentive to indigenous cosmovisions and other expansive understandings of both geography and nature in Chile and how they might facilitate a renewed and more holistic understanding of the events around the golpe.

In August of this year, Guzmán was awarded Chile’s National Award for Representational and Audiovisual Arts, becoming the second filmmaker to receive this award after director Raúl Ruiz, another Chilean exile. He also received an honorary doctorate from the Universidad de Valparaíso. However, Guzmán’s renown in his own country is a novel phenomenon. For decades, he was much better known outside of Chile than within it.

The Chilean public’s inattention to his work was comprehensible, as The Battle of Chile was among those thousand-plus films banned during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Its three sections circulated clandestinely on VHS or Betamax until the return to democracy in 1990. Chile’s La Red channel broadcasted all three sections on Chilean television for the first time as recently as 2021.

Most of Guzmán’s films have now become easily accessible online in Chile through the national streaming service Ondamedia. The vitalization of his work in Chile has also allowed him to gain support there and in France for 2K restorations of The Battle of Chile and his first feature documentary, The First Year (1972) — all of which will begin screening again this year.

The Early Years

Born in Santiago but raised in Viña del Mar, Guzmán went on to study at the Universidad de Santiago de Chile. As a student, he worked as a camera assistant for Dutch documentarian Joris Ivens on the short documentary . . . A Valparaíso (1964). He then pursued other filmmaking opportunities at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and studied directing at the Escuela Oficial de Cine in Madrid.

Guzmán envisioned a career making fiction films, but the political milieu of Allende’s Chile in the 1970s proved too magnetic.

Upon returning from his studies in Madrid, Guzmán envisioned a career making fiction films, but the political milieu of Allende’s Chile in the 1970s proved too magnetic. Guzmán premiered both The First Year and October’s Response in 1972. The First Year, a film that followed the first year of the Allende presidency, made a deep impression upon the esteemed French filmmaker Chris Marker. Marker first viewed the film while in Chile as part of the crew on the Greek director Costa-Gavras’s State of Siege (1972) and would distribute The First Year in Europe.

Guzmán continued to be both increasingly disturbed and inspired by the events in Chile, seeing how the country was effectively in a state of pre–civil war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, backed by the United States. As he wrote to Marker:

The bourgeoisie will deploy all its resources. It will deploy the bourgeois legal system. It will deploy its own professional organizations together with [Richard] Nixon’s economic power. . . . We must make a film about all this! . . . A wide-ranging piece shot in the factories, the fields, the mines. An investigative film whose grand sets are the cities, the villages, the coast, the desert. A film like a mural, split into chapters, whose protagonists are the people and their union leaders on the one hand, and the oligarchy, its leaders and their connections with the government in Washington on the other. A film of analysis.

Marker offered a crucial fillip to Guzmán’s nascent project Third Year, which became The Battle of Chile, by sending film stock when it was impossible to obtain through normal means due to the US blockade on Chile.

Such support came at a decisive moment as Guzmán had also lost the funding initially offered by Chile Films, which had until recently been led by Miguel Littin (director of the acclaimed El Chacal de Nahueltoro, 1969). This was due to austerity measures taken by the Allende government and the fact that Chile Films had initially contracted Guzmán to make a feature film about the Chilean founding father Manuel Rodríguez. However, Guzmán’s populist vision of Rodríguez in the unfinished film gave him an understanding of the importance of rescuing history from the stranglehold of conservative elites — a project he would develop further in The Battle of Chile.

El Equipo Tercer Año

Recommitting themselves to the documentary form for a third film, Guzmán and his team, now designated the Equipo Tercer Año (“Third Year Team”), were an eclectic amalgamation of figures. Marta Harnecker, one of the collaborators on the script, was a Chilean political theorist who had studied under Louis Althusser. José Bartolomé, the assistant director, was a Spanish economist, while Jorge Müller Silva was a promising cinematographer with prior filmmaking experiences with Littin and Ruiz.

These team members and a small group of other collaborators, like producer Federico Elton and sound artist Bernando Menz, labored to create a complex Marxist analysis that would function more like a cinematic essay and could communicate to future generations the details of the situation in Chile. The team realized that the film would be an important artifact to promulgate the sacrifices of the Chilean people should a golpe come to pass. But the film crew also truly believed Allende’s forces would prevail in such a scenario; it did not know that the soldiers loyal to the president were already being identified and purged.

The films invite us to engage with the intellectual arguments put forward by a variety of sources.

The team put together an enormous theoretical outline and demarcated the Chilean reality into three categories — ideological, political, and economic. To forge a dialectical vision of the situation in Chile, they traced the critical sites of contestation for the proletariat and the peasants as they attempted to expand their power in the face of increasing violence from the nation’s elites. While the Equipo Tercer Año were capturing the conditions specific to Chile, they grasped that what was happening in Chile foreshadowed situations elsewhere around the world.

The filmmaking cadre captured strikes, protests, demotic speeches, and eventually the golpe itself. The films invite us to engage with the intellectual arguments put forward by a variety of sources, ranging from average Chilean voters after the electoral victory of Unidad Popular to the striking copper workers in El Teniente to labor organizers representing the national Central Única de Trabajadores de Chile on the one hand and regional cordones (workers’ belts) on the other.

The camera-on-the-street approach presents these voices as simultaneously grandiose and myopic. Since the filmmaking team operated with limited resources, they were very frugal in not devoting too much effort to sensuous events. Flamboyant sequences, such as a sequence in the third part with the Chilean folk band Quilapayún that speaks to the important nueva canción movement in Chile, are few and far between.

The team, working in a clandestine manner, also took precautionary measures and worked under different names and titles. As they accumulated footage, only Guzmán and his wife Pamela Urzúa knew where the film reels were stored for security measures.

Resistance in Exile

When the golpe occurred on September 11, Guzmán was imprisoned in Santiago’s National Stadium for fifteen days. Due to the secrecy with which they had operated, while the military knew that he was a teacher of communication, they were unaware that he was a filmmaker actively working on a project about the golpe as it was unfolding. 

When the golpe occurred on September 11, Guzmán was imprisoned in Santiago’s National Stadium for fifteen days.

After Guzmán’s imprisonment, his wife and team began to send the film out of the country with the support of filmmaker Gastón Ancelovici and the Swedish embassy. At one point, the footage narrowly escaped the military’s searches of Bernando Menz’s apartment, but all the footage eventually made its way safely to Stockholm.

Most of the filmmaking unit went into exile, but the cinematographer Jorge Müller Silva, who was also a member of the militant Movement of the Revolutionary Left, was arrested and disappeared by the junta in 1974. Each of the three films begins with a dedication to his memory.

In exile, Guzmán traveled to France and met with Alfredo Guevara and Saúl Yelín of Cuba’s national film institute, the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC). With Chris Marker’s support, the ICAIC agreed to support the film’s completion. After his arrival in Havana, Guzmán worked closely with the film’s editor, Pedro Chaskel. Chaskel was a director who had been one of the mentors in experimental filmmaking at the Universidad de Chile for directors like Ruiz and Littin, and he became a leader in the creation of the Chilean Film Archives From the Exile.

Guzmán also received the guidance of the Cuban filmmaker and theorist Julio García Espinosa, one of the founders of the ICAIC. Espinosa’s participation on script edits and as a mentor from the ICAIC were significant. He permitted the team the wide latitude it needed for a project of this scale, and his writings on imperfect cinema had long inspired Guzmán’s team. The Cuban director’s film Third World, Third World War (1970) had also provided a template for The Battle of Chile before they even began filming.

Activist Cinema

Ultimately, the film took a tripartite, nonlinear structure, with a total length of four and a half hours. The three successive parts were The Insurrection of the Bourgeoise (1975), The Coup d’État (1976), and finally Popular Power (1979). The films are in black and white, shot with a handheld camera. Guzmán and Jorge Müller Silva’s insistence on putting the spectators directly in the middle of moments of crisis involved the expert use of facial close-ups to put laborers, peasants, and common people at the center, rather than elites of the Left or Right.

The trilogy oscillates between the analytic and poetic registers, acting as a participant in a massive social rupture.

The trilogy oscillates between the analytic and poetic registers, acting as a participant in a massive social rupture. It expects viewers to also be active participants in some of the most intellectually demanding documentaries created in the era.

The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie follows the backlash of the middle and upper classes against Unidad Popular and the ways in which members of these classes conspired with foreign interests to pave the way for the golpe. The film opens with footage of the aerial bombardment of Chile’s presidential palace, La Moneda, and then works backward to understand how substantial portions of the Chilean populace could celebrate such violence.

To accomplish this task, the film switches back and forth between interviews with supporters for Unidad Popular and the opposition, principally the Christian Democrats, but also fascist groups like the Fatherland and Liberty Nationalist Front. The denouement of the first film is shocking and presents the murder of photojournalist Leonardo Henrichsen as he filmed his own death during the first failed golpe that occurred in June of 1973.

The Coup d’État follows the complexity and conflicts between the various groups on the Left. These various factions can’t seem to agree upon how to best protect the gains made by Unidad Popular. Ultimately, these debates do not secure a firm defense plan against the military’s subversion.

The film’s coda contains footage from Allende’s final address before his death and the military junta’s subsequent televised proclamation of their power and denunciation of the “Marxist cancer” in the Allende government. Yet even as Guzmán shows us Allende supporters being arrested by the military, he is firm that the battle for Chile is far from finished.

The third part, Popular Power, focuses on the organizing that took place among Chilean workers from 1972 to 1973 as they sought to further socialist projects including the occupation of factories and of agricultural territories. The attempts at solidarity by local communities to distribute food and other important commodities during the time of mass scarcity is a central motif of the film. The workers consistently understand the urgency of the moment even as the Allende government remains reluctant to act.

An Imaginary Country

Guzmán’s latest film, 2022’s My Imaginary Country, is a poetic continuation of The Battle of Chile in which Guzmán tracks the aftermath of the 2019 estallido social, the massive nationwide protests that demanded an end to a variety of inequalities in Chile and a new constitution that would finally leave the 1980 Pinochet-era document in the past.

The battle for Chile — what it was, is, and remembers itself to be — continues.

While such events prompted hopeful statements from Guzmán himself — “Chile has found its memory. The event that I have waited for since my years as a student have finally happened” — the aftermath of the estallido social has been more ambiguous. In 2022, Chileans rejected perhaps the most progressive constitution ever drafted in the Americas by a substantial margin.

In late August of this year, President Gabriel Boric authorized a new search plan to locate the remains of the thousand-plus disappeared Chileans whose remains are still missing. In addition, Chile’s Supreme Court finally charged seven soldiers for the murder of folk singer Víctor Jara in the National Stadium after the golpe. As many in the country mourned the passing of Guillermo Teillier, who led the military resistance of the Communist Party in Chile during the dictatorship and served as the party’s president from 2005 to 2023, Boric praised the dignity of Teillier’s life and passing while labeling the suicide of Hernán Chacón Soto, one of Jara’s murderers, as an act of cowardice to avoid justice.

Such contemporary events remind us that the battle for Chile — what it was, is, and remembers itself to be — continues. For those seeking to understand the rules of engagement in that battle, there can be no better starting point than to return to the corpus of Patricio Guzmán, one of the most politically resolute filmmakers to ever take up the camera — a camera that he has transformed into a tool of poetry and memory in the ongoing fight against fascism.

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