In the radical seventies as a student in America I saw many documentaries that began to push me in the direction of thinking of filmmaking as a viable and vital form of action and protest but the one film that remains etched in my mind is Patricio Guzman’s “The Battle of Chile”.
Chile’s President Salvador Allende was already our ideal. I was grappling with the desire to convert my Marxist friends to value democratic, non-violent means, while at the same time trying to convince my Gandhian friends that mere non-violence without class analysis could not bring economic and social justice. Here was Allende, a Marxist who came to power not through a bloody revolution but through elections. When a CIA sponsored military coup killed Allende in 1973 and massacred thousands of workers and bright young Chileans who worked amongst the people, it was a great blow to the cause of democratic socialism and to me personally. Guzman’s epic documentary captured both the glory and challenge of the Allende years but also underlined the proportions of the tragedy that befell the world after his overthrow and murder on September 11, 1973.
What I recall creating the greatest impact on me was not the most dramatic footage in the film – the footage of an Argentinian cameraman who had continued to shoot even as the military fired directly at him, thereby filming his own death – nor the footage of the final bombing of the Moneda building in which Allende died – it was the painstaking record of daily events in the lives of ordinary citizens of Chile as the crisis created by the CIA and the Chilean oligarchy moved towards its tragic finale.
On seeing the film again a quarter of a century later one is struck by details rather than by the broad strokes. The camerapersons of “The Battle of Chile” paid the highest price for their courage and their ability to go anywhere and everywhere. Apart from the Argentinian Leonardo Henrickson who died while filming, the main cinematographer of the film, Jorge Muller, was tortured and killed by the brutal regime of General Augusto Pinochet in the aftermath of the coup that overthrew Allende. Guzman’s cameras are everywhere at once, talking with the right wing urban elite, mingling with workers in their homes and factories, observing hypocritical politicians in Parliament, marching with workers as the Opposition opened fire from overhead balconies, attending the funeral procession of a worker who was killed in the firing, dissecting the cold, smiling exteriors of a military leadership already controlled from Washington, already involved in the pre-emptive murder of a colleague whom they suspect may remain faithful to the elected government on the day of the great betrayal.
The narrative begins to take on the ominous tone of a prophecy foretold as we witness the machinations of a right-wing determined to seize power by any means necessary, shifting seamlessly from unshakeable faith in the democratic process (as long as it brings victory) to making unlikely alliances with striking workers, to an open embrace of fascism.
With the hindsight of history we know the tragedy that lies in wait, but much of the film remains suffused with the hope and romance of a revolution in the making, a revolution that could bring justice without spilling blood, without sacrificing democracy. One can feel this romance coursing through the veins of the film crew as it records minute discussions held in factories and meeting halls where every shade of the working class political spectrum expresses itself and gears up for the days to come. Everyone can sense that a confrontation is almost inevitable. Many express the view that the legally elected government should begin to arm the workers in self-defence. But Allende remains an idealist to the end, either convinced that key sections of the State will remain loyal and respect the Constitution, or determined that come what may, he will not use extra-legal means to protect himself and his government.
One danger in evaluating a film of this significance is that its content almost precludes analysis of its aesthetic. To correct this tendency, in the 70’s Julio Garcia Espinoza launched a thesis of “Imperfect Cinema” applauding the “look and feel” of a cinema that bore the marks of the struggles it was depicting. So black and white, grainy, scratched and fast moving hand-held footage came to be a recognized cinematic expression. “The Battle of Chile” while at times epitomizing the best values of such “imperfection” goes far beyond self-conscious radicalism and its poetry stems from an unerring faith in the importance of the ordinary as it interweaves with the extra-ordinary.
Like that masterpiece of historical reconstruction, Gilo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers” a film it was probably named after, “The Battle of Chile” takes us chapter by inexorable chapter to its denouement but with a distinction that sets it apart. It is not a fictional recreation but a living record of a people as they were in a world we may never see again and revives the memory of a hope we are fortunate to be able to feel again.
Dox Magazine, August 2003