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When Remembering Becomes a Political Act

Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán works at the bloody crossroads where art and politics meet.

Kino Lorber

On the morning of September 11, 1973, the residents of Valparaiso, a coastal city in Chile, awoke to find themselves under military control. Commander Augusto Pinochet, after months of public aggression, had finally launched his coup d’état against Salvador Allende’s socialist, democratically elected government. By midday his army had reached Santiago and surrounded the presidential palace. By evening they had bombed it, taken over the country, and begun the draconian killings and imprisonments—torturing 38,000 people and killing 2,000 political opponents—that would last 17 years.

Patricio Guzmán, who had spent the previous year filming Chile’s major political events, was one of the thousands of socialists detained in Santiago’s National Stadium that first evening. Had authorities inspected his film reels, which included footage of the palace bombing, they would have killed him right then. But he managed to escape the country, and for three years Guzmán edited his footage in exile. Then in 1976, he released the first installation of The Battle of Chile, a three-part documentary that would go on to win awards around the globe. Battle has been called one of the “ten best political documentaries in the world,” and indeed it is that rare type of film that reinvigorates our relationship with politics.

Since 1972, Guzmán had been compulsively documenting events in Santiago, with the aid of one Éclair camera, one Nagra sound recorder, and five crewmembers with no previous experience. Filming every day, Guzmán attended political events and interviewed people from different social classes. At the time, he admits, “I didn’t know what I was shooting.” But in retrospect, it is clear that Guzmán was creating a panorama of socialism in action. Battle unfolds in long, forcefully patterned shots that move from street protests to citizen’s homes, from election booths to the parliament, from mines to union meetings. At its best moments, the film unfolds like the great river of democracy itself.

A still from “The Battle Of Chile,” 1976

Pinochet’s coup, however, gave Guzmán’s footage the sort of tragic arc he never expected. Battle sets out to be a film about socialism, but, as the CIA-backed strikes and military aggression begin, it shifts focus to the rise of a fascist dictatorship. In other words, this film about socialism became a film about the death of socialism. And since Guzmán was one of the few filmmakers documenting the unfolding events, Battle also became, as critic Andy Beckett notes, “the source of many of the images by which the wider world has, intermittently, tried to understand Chile ever since its famous political convulsions in the 70s.” A sacred text of the left, a central political document, the film quickly became more than its then 23-year-old director planned for it to be.

Forty-two years after Battle of Chile, Guzmán has released The Pearl Button, an experimental, genre-defying film that once again returns us to the Pinochet years. In the decades since, Guzmán has continued to make documentaries addressing Chile’s political turmoil, his focus gradually shifting from Pinochet’s dictatorship to the memory of the dictatorship. As one journalist noted in Slate, “For years after Pinochet was peacefully removed from power in 1990, Chileans seemed eager to forget the past and move on.” Guzmán, understandably, has been appalled by this political amnesia. In a country where history has been easily repressed, Guzmán’s recent films have attempted—not always successfully—to turn remembering into a political act.

For all its beauty and bold political insight, the Battle of Chile is, stylistically speaking, a rather conventional documentary. Events unfold in linear time, and Guzmán narrates over his footage in the manner of a news broadcaster. No event is left unexplained; everything is placed in the context of the larger ideological narrative. People aren’t people, but social types, and Guzman’s questions—“Who will win the election?” “What do you see as the future of Chile?” “Why are you striking?” “Why are you not striking?”—are always political, never personal.

At times, Battle feels more like a recovered newsreel than a movie, and in this respect it was typical of political documentaries of the era. These movies narrated untold histories, conducted investigations, or closely depicted political events overlooked by the media. Great achievements of the genre—such as Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA, which sensitively documented a grueling coal workers’ strike in a small Kentucky town, and Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, an exploration of Vichy-Nazi collaboration during World War II—were engaged in the sort of investigations we expect from journalists today.

But in the past few decades, many filmmakers have found innovative forms to address political trauma. In fact, experimentation has become a defining feature of today’s best documentaries. When I interviewed Wim Wenders earlier this year, he told me that documentaries have lately become “a more courageous and more adventurous genre” than fictional films. “Fiction, I’m afraid to say, is more and more based on formulas,” he said. “Courageous’” is a key word here. Formal experimentation isn’t just an aesthetic game for today’s documentarians—it’s a response to the complex, painful realities that they are trying to depict.

The best of these are Joshua Oppenheimer’s acclaimed The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, which explore the orgy of anti-communist killing—once again backed by the CIA—inflicted by Major General Suharto on Indonesia in the late 1960s. Faced with the prospect of shooting a conventional documentary about Suharto, a man who ordered the murder of over 100 million people, Oppenheimer instead came up with a subversive and ingenuous way to approach it: inviting Suharto’s collaborators to re-enact the countless killings they had conducted. The killers readily agreed, and their re-enactments were as grotesque as they were revealing.

Other recent films have used similar conceits to explore the source of violence, both political and personal. Errol Morris’ genre-bending The Fog Of War is an essayistic inquiry into the limits of human knowledge and the ubiquity of political violence, told through an extended interview with former Secretary of State Robert McNamara. John Pirozzi’s Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten addresses Pol Pot’s Cambodian genocide, but through the side-door of rock documentary. The Wolfpack is a coming-of-age film about six brothers who grew up locked indoors by their father—told via their obsessive and meticulous recreations of famous movies. 

Guzmán, too, has changed with the times. While his early films were conventionally told, his recent work uses more experimental techniques to tease out the stories of violence that lie beneath Chile’s calm surface. His latest films are filled with the stylistic tics of modern genre-bending documentaries—philosophic inquiry, the subversive use of traditional documentary forms, and the restaging of political violence.

Guzmán began this experimentation with 2010’s Nostalgia for the Light, a poetic inquiry into time and memory. Nostalgia opens with shots of space, but soon settles down in the Atacama Desert. Here we are introduced to the world’s largest telescopes and the Chileans who run them. For a while the film indulges in the gentle wonder of a science education. Then, around its halfway point, it violently changes genre and story. The Atacama Desert isn’t only home to telescopes; it’s also where Pinochet tossed his victims’ bodies. Following this revelation, Guzmán leaves the observatory and introduces us to the desaparecidos, a group of Chilean women who spend their days combing through the desert with garden spades, searching for human remains of their relatives. “I wish these telescopes didn’t just look at the sky,” one woman tells us. “But could also see through the earth.”

It’s a strange juxtaposition for a film: scientists who search the sky, and women who search for corpses. Guzmán uses this metaphoric resonance to raise a dark question: How, he asks, can a country so advanced in studying the origins of the universe be so hesitant to examine its recent past? Guzmán has said that with Nostalgia he “opened [him]self more to metaphors, poetry, symbols and allegories than in other movies.” It seems he had to. The story of the desaparecidos—the aftermath of an atrocity—is too extreme, too strange to be contained in any conventional narrative.

This month Guzmán released The Pearl Button, a film that’s part anthropological documentary, and part political investigation. Until its halfway point, The Pearl Button focuses on the indigenous people of the Patagonian coast, specifically the Kawésqar tribe. Combining archival photographs, his usual narration, and contemporary footage of landscape and survivors, Guzmán poignantly evokes, in a style reminiscent of National Geographic, the Kawésqar’s threatened, aquatic way of life.

The film turns darker—and for Americans, darkly familiar—once Guzmán delves into Chile’s colonial history. Western colonizers, in cahoots with local farmers, came close to completely exterminating Patagonia’s local people. “Many became prey to Indian hunters,” we are told in one extremely gruesome scene: “Farmers offered one pound for a man’s testicle, one pound for a woman’s breast, ten shillings for a child’s ear.” Guzman ends this section by telling us the story of Jeremy Button, an indigenous Chilean. In the nineteenth century, a British navy man decided to take four Patagonian natives back to Britain to “civilize” them. One of the captives, Jeremy Button, was named after the object his life was traded for—a pearl button.

Then, abruptly, Guzmán jumps forward two centuries to introduce us to a particularly vile atrocity of the Pinochet years. As a part of his campaign of disappearances, Pinochet flew more than 1,400 corpses in army helicopters, and dropped them into the Pacific Ocean. Guzmán interviews a helicopter pilot who confesses to have been involved in dumping the bodies, and then, taking a cue from Joshua Oppenheimer, proceeds to re-enact one of those fatal army flights. His crew paints a helicopter in the Pinochet army’s traditional colors, fastens a corpse-sized package to an iron bar, and then drops it into the ocean. This scene, which unfolds in utter silence save for the helicopter’s buzzing wings, is both unreal and terrifying.

What is the connection between this movie’s two halves? Guzmán sees the Pacific Ocean linking Patagonia’s indigenous people with Pinochet’s victims (just as the Atacama Desert linked Chile’s astronomers with its desaparecidos). But he finds a literal connection as well. In the film’s closing section, Guzmán follows a diver who has been commissioned to search for corpses that Pinochet might have discarded off the Chilean coast. The investigation is around 25 years too late, and the bodies have completely decomposed. The diver does manage to retrieve the metal rails they were bound to, and in one of these rails, amidst the encrustations of ocean life, the diver finds a button. This button—the film’s key image—is meant to connect its anonymous owner with Jeremy Button, and so connect all Pinochet’s victims with Chile’s ingenious people. “Both buttons tell the same story,” Guzmán says. “The story of extermination.”

It’s a nice thought, but one that collapses under the least examination. It’s true that Pinochet’s victims and Patagonia’s indigenous people were both, to different extents, exterminated. But so, sadly, were many groups throughout history. By using a gimmicky button to pseudo-philosophically equate the two, Guzmán erases the specific political phenomena surrounding each of Guzmán’s subjects. The indigenous Patagonians were victims of colonial violence motivated by racial contempt. Pinochet, on the other hand, was driven by a dictator’s pathetic thirst for power. Conflating these two, however righteous that may feel, only prevents us from seeing either clearly.

There are other problems with The Pearl Button. Most of Guzmán’s philosophical ideas—regarding the recurrence of violence, the primitive wisdom of the Kawésqars—are hinted at rather than fleshed out. His excursions into the genre of anthropological and science documentary are stilted at best, and the musical and visual effects he incorporates are unfailingly kitschy. He’s simply trying too much. A sensitive documentary about Patagonian indigenous people would have been welcome, as would an examination of the guilt of helicopter commandoes, or of the Pacific Ocean as a mass grave, or even—though this is certainly not his métier—a science documentary about water. Guzmán tries to do all these things at once, and doesn’t achieve the polyphonous unity he seeks. What we are left with is the promise of several interesting films, and the presence of an incomplete one.

For an artist, it is a great challenge, perhaps the greatest challenge, to operate at the bloody crossroads where art and politics meet. And this challenge is only intensified when exploring issues that most people are trying to forget. Guzmán has yet to make a morally and aesthetically satisfying film that fully grapples with the receding memory of Pinochet’s horrors. And yet it’s clear that his old verite style is unsuitable to the more philosophical subject matter of his late phase. That does not make The Pearl Button the end of the road. Guzmán’s recent films might have been technically and imaginatively flawed, but, more than anything, they showed that this 74-year old has lost none of his youthful ambition.  If he has yet to make a film that matches The Act of Killing’s potent experimentation, there is still time.