The Duty of Memory in the Films of Patricio Guzmán: Resisting Obstinate Oblivion

    In this year's Retrospective, IDFA pays homage to Chilean master Patricio Guzmán. Pamela Biénzobas delves into his legacy.

    When memory fails, history is either forgotten or rewritten at the convenience of whoever holds the most powerful pen and paper. For nearly half a century, the work of Patricio Guzmán has been driven by the “duty of memory,” especially in relation to the 1970s and 1980s in Chile. And every day, his sense of duty is proven right, as in the country (and increasingly throughout the world) memory is something rare, snubbed and mostly deemed useless and cumbersome. In a recent example, last September 11—on the 46th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew Salvador Allende—the dominant national broadsheet El Mercurio included a full-page paid publication praising the putsch.

    The blatant negationism was widely denounced. Nevertheless, the fact that a group of people (mainly politicians and business owners) can openly pay and sign such a tribute is an illustration of how, three decades after the first post-dictatorship elections, Chile is as divided as ever. That division is becoming as normalized as the narratives of those who still justify the coup and the subsequent regime. And today they still feel empowered enough to publicly eulogize it.

    Patricio Guzmán’s films have constantly addressed that social discord, and, especially in his early works, often portrayed it by paying attention to the individual faces of a divided country; each with their own hopes, their despair, their fears, their rage, their convictions, their arrogance, their determination; anonymous or identifiable; on the streets, in factories; in rags, in work overalls or in military uniforms. One could almost look at his documentaries from the 1970s just concentrating on the gazes to feel the constructive and destructive passions moving Chile at the time.

    Testimonies of an Endless Battle

    When the budding filmmaker felt compelled to document the “Chilean socialist experience” (Allende being the first democratically-elected Marxist president in the world), it was clear to him that he was living history in the making, and that it was vital to keep a record of it as it happened. Without hiding his own views as one of the millions who adhered to the government of the Popular Unity (the coalition around Allende), but simply putting that aside, he did not set out to film just the elation, but the divergent and extreme voices as well. What he and his small crew filmed during those three years was an account in the present tense.

    Already in the quite galvanizing The First Year (1971), which focuses on the social and political changes in the initial period of Allende’s term, the deepening polarization among fellow Chileans is a permanent presence. Soon after, in the medium-length The October Reply (1972), it had become the driving force, as the film documents the boycott (specifically the blockade organized by truck owners) aiming to destabilize the government. The footage that the group went on shooting—and the impassioned speeches, slogans and songs they recorded as things got progressively heated—would later be edited into Guzmán’s master trilogy, The Battle of Chile (1975-79), a title that could hardly reflect the society’s division any more explicitly.

    That present-tense record is the material that inspired the one film, of all Guzmán’s work, in which the duty of memory emerges most strongly, not just as the motivation but as the principal subject matter: Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997). Through the discussions around The Battle of Chile, the documentary shows how two decades after those events, the population’s political antagonism was still defining the nation’s memory—or the absence of it. The dictatorship had officially ended a few years back, and the way history was being written or rewritten in that fragile period of “transition towards democracy” was crucial. The main risk was allowing the narrative to be dictated through the prism of the ultra-liberalism imposed by the dictatorship and its “Chicago boys” (disciples of Milton Friedman), which to this day still shapes the country’s economic and social tissue.

    The screenings with people who had lived those times is the occasion to reflect on history as they experienced it. But the most telling aspect of the film is when the documentarian shows his work to teenagers and young adults born during the dictatorship, many of whom came from a conservative background. Most knew very little or nothing—or a distorted account—of what The Battle of Chile chronicles. These Chileans of a new generation react not only to what they discover, but also to the realization of their own ignorance of a past, and a history that ultimately belongs to them. And of how they too, aware or not, are caught in the seemingly endemic division of their society.

    Elemental Memory

    In his most recent trilogy—Nostalgia for the Light (2010), The Pearl Button (2015) and The Cordillera of Dreams (2019)—Guzmán proposes variations of another approach to memory: connecting the most imposing and defining physical elements of Chile’s awe-inspiring landscape to its unresolved issues, and to the filmmaker’s personal reflections.

    The narrative construction of these recent documentaries often resorts to analogies, such as the material link between human and celestial bodies through the element of calcium in Nostalgia for the Light. Guzmán turns his gaze both towards the sky and the earth of the Atacama desert, associating astronomy and archaeology in a metaphor about the search for Chile’s disappeared. Invariably driven by the subject of collective memory, he now interweaves different historical periods and matters. Though the violence of the coup and the dictatorship is always at the core, he also incorporates more ancient atrocities that have shaped the identity of Chile as the country we know today, such as when he looks back at the genocide of the native peoples of the south in The Pearl Button.

    As his films focus more and more on retrospective analysis, far from the agitation of the 1970s that inevitably affected the form of his work at the time, both the camera and the editing become serene. This means growing space for contemplation and set-up interviews. Aside from the protagonists of the events recalled and of the victims, Guzmán increasingly summons the insight, knowledge and perspective of social and natural scientists, and of artists whose creation addresses similar questions to those that inform his cinema. In today’s Chile, and today’s world, listening to the voices of the arts and science seems imperative to avoid history being written by the sponsors of full-page denialist propaganda.

    Pamela Biénzobas is a Chilean-French film critic, journalist and consultant. As a freelance writer, she has contributed to a number of daily newspapers, magazines, and books.

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