This month marks the 50th anniversary of General Augusto Pinochet’s coup on the presidency of Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile. The bombing of La Moneda, the presidential palace, on September 11, 1973 led to the death of President Allende—the world’s first democratically elected Socialist president—and the start of Pinochet’s 17-year rule that would become one of Latin America’s most brutal and violent dictatorships.
The political maneuverings that led to this moment in Chile, as well as the horror and grief that’s occurred since, are complicated and devastating to comprehend. And yet, the Chilean documentarian and filmmaker Patricio Guzmán has dedicated his life and career to illuminating the country’s history. Through his films, the intricate networks of cause and effect are revealed via intimate and firsthand footage of what was happening in Chile in the 1970s. Guzmán’s most recent movies also contextualize the present against Chile’s previous history, unique geography, and the larger realities of the continent.
Born in Santiago, Chile in 1941, Guzmán remembers being attracted to cinema early on, making 8-millimeter stop-animation films with his high school friends. He enrolled in the Film Institute at the Catholic University of Chile and later moved to Spain, where he received a degree from the Official School of Film in Madrid in 1970.
“During my childhood, the presidents were always very serious. They’d pass through the office, collect their coins, and nothing would change,” Guzmán told me when we spoke over Zoom in late August. “When Allende arrived, that program ended and he opened the country to the people. New schools were built, new professions became obtainable. El pueblo was finally a part of the government and institutions. That’s when I decided to make a film of what was going on.” Guzmán returned to Santiago in 1971 and began filming, along with four others, the documentary, The First Year—the first of an illustrious career as an independent filmmaker with a striking vision.
The First Year, 1972
Guzmán and his team spent twelve months after the election of President Allende traveling all over Chile, interviewing and documenting how citizens felt about the change. Their footage, as shown in The First Year, displays the euphoric sentiment felt all over the country at the time; hope and elation are clear in the voices of the people, and also evidenced by the many parades celebrating the new president. Allende’s initiatives, including the redistribution of land to Indigenous communities and the nationalization of the country’s industries, Chileans finally had a stake in their own livelihood.
During this time, the French filmmaker Chris Marker traveled to Chile with the intention of discovering young talent and witnessing the onset of a socialized country. Marker had been an early inspiration for Guzmán, who showed Marker The First Year during his visit in Santiago. Marker bought the film and took it with him to Europe where he showed it in Paris and other European cities. The film gathered international acclaim, launching Guzmán to a global platform.
Guzmán remained in Chile during those international showings of his first documentary; he learned about its success through newspaper clippings that Marker would send him. By 1972, the political landscape in Chile was becoming increasingly precarious. The political parties that opposed Allende, with the help of funding by the U.S. government—which spent $8 million on covert actions to sabotage Allende’s presidency between 1970 and 1973 according to a 1975 Senate report—were creating widespread shortages of food and goods, economic unrest, and social upheaval. Guzmán and his crew knew they needed to keep filming.
The Battle of Chile, Parts I, II, and III; 1975-1979
Faced with limited access to the equipment needed to make a movie, Guzmán wrote a letter to Marker asking him for help. Marker replied by sending a large box that contained 50,000 feet of fresh film.
“In a small room in the center of Santiago, us five—Jorge Muller, the cameraman; Bernardo Menz on sound; Jose Bartolome as assistant director; Federico Elton, the production manager, and me—started the outline of the film: the actions that had happened and were happening in the country,” Guzmán said. Together, the team captured what would turn out to be the unraveling of one of Latin America’s strongest democracies.
The Battle of Chile picks up where The First Year left off, demonstrating with on-the-ground footage the events that led up to Pinochet’s coup—and how the people were responding and reacting to each occurrence. The trilogy is a difficult and emotional set of films to watch, but crucial in understanding what happened in Chile and how political leaders and industry shareholders battled for power at the expense of the general population.
After the coup, Guzmán was imprisoned in the National Stadium for 15 days. Many of the other members of his crew went into hiding or left Chile. Jorge Muller, however, continued filming. About a year later, he was captured by the DINA, Pinochet’s secret police, and killed. “We each suffered the fate chosen for us. [Muller] is one of the 5,000-6,000 disappeared from that time,” Guzmán said. “His body was never found. If they threw him in the ocean, nobody knows where. There is no testimony of his life other than the work we did together.”
Battle of Chile premiered at the Cannes Film Festival—Part 1 in 1975, Part 2 in 1976, and Part 3 in 1979. It won six Grand Prizes in Europe and Latin America and has been screened all over the world. Guzmán eventually relocated to Europe, where he continued making films about Chile and Pinochet’s dictatorship. Over time, his documentaries shifted from a first-person, documentarian perspective to a broader and poetic view on what had taken place. “But I have never changed my position, because if you excavate the history of Latin America, you will find thousands of injustices,” Guzmán said. “Latin America is a continent with music, dance, and colors—but it’s also a continent of suffering and giant catastrophes that need to been taken care of.”
Nostalgia for the Light, 2010
Guzmán has been tending to these wounds by creating more documentaries. In Nostalgia for the Light, he reflects on Chile’s Atacama Desert, one of the best places on the planet to view the stars because of its clear skies and dry climate. The Atacama Desert is also where Pinochet placed one of the concentration camps built during his dictatorship, and where he hid the remains of many political prisoners. While astronomers studied the history of the universe in one part of the desert, women searched for the remains of relatives who disappeared years ago in another.
Nostalgia for the Light is a beautiful cosmic quest to find meaning in these two parallels. Unlike in his earlier documentaries, which barely have a narrator, Guzmán’s voice is a poetic guide as he delves into the painful memories that are still present in the minds of Chileans today.
The Pearl Button, 2015
In The Pearl Button, Guzmán uses a similar approach of viewing Pinochet’s dictatorship through the lens of geography and archeology—this time, by exploring the history of the waters that border Chile.
The Kaweskar, or “Water People,” were a nomadic Indigenous group that originally inhabited Patagonia and traveled by canoe along the enormous Chilean coastline. Their way of life ended with the arrival of colonists in the 19th century. Many of them were captured and killed, others were captured and sent to Catholic conversion camps where they were tortured and forced to adapt a new language and religion. A conversion camp on Dawson Island became the location for another one of Pinochet’s concentration camps, revealing a throughline of violence and brutality. The Pacific ocean that was once a life source for the Kaweskar people became a burial ground where Pinochet and his accomplices would try to hide the bodies of prisoners. Guzmán bridges these moments in history via the metaphor of water, emphasizing the importance of remembrance—a key theme across his filmic oeuvre.
My Imaginary Country, 2022
Guzmán’s latest film, My Imaginary Country, marks a return to political coverage and focuses on the 2019 protests in Chile, which were triggered by an increase in subway fare. But unlike his earlier documentaries, this film is an amalgamation of cinéma vérité and poetic narration. A lot has changed in Chile over the years, but much is still the same as well. The country is still operating under the Constitution established by Pinochet, whose military dictatorship ended in 1990.
One of the most interesting things Guzmán highlights in his documentary is the shift in protestors. In the past, they were mostly laborers and men. Now, there were young people and specifically women at the forefront of the movement. The film culminates in the people of Chile establishing a new constitutional assembly, and the election of a young Socialist president, Gabriel Boric. (A new constitution has yet to be approved as of September 2023.)
Guzmán’s documentaries, like all great pieces of art, exist in a place between beauty and horror. The filmmaker shines a light onto history’s darker moments, but provides a sense of hope for the future at the same time. “I will keep making movies that are positive and encouraging,” Guzmán said. “It’s what inspires me to be an artist. If I didn’t have hope for a better future, I wouldn’t have made any films at all.”