1975, 1976, 1979, Movies

The Battle of Chile (1975, 1976, 1979, Patricio Guzman)

This is a remarkable 3-part documentary (cinema verite style) that exhaustively covers the political crisis that led to the 1973 coup in Chile and the aftermath. And when I say ‘covers’ I mean it’s an eyewitness account that was smuggled out of Chile. It has to stand as one of the film landmarks of the decade, one of the landmarks of cinema verite and it may qualify as one of the great documentaries of all time, though I have some reservations (see below).

  • The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie, originally released in 1975, covers the 1973 parliamentary election that maintained Allende’s hold on the presidency and the resultant power struggle between the Right and the Left, fought both politically and, at times, violently.
  • The Coup d’etat, originally released in 1976, covers the coup, obviously, but mostly focuses on the summer leading up to it, as both sides vie for for control of government and areas of the country.
  • Popular Power, originally released in 1979, documents Allende’s economic changes. It is the least of the films and the most problematic.

But really all films should be viewed as part of one whole which is why I chose to review them as one.

It’s hard, really, to conceive of the risk and and the sheer willpower necessary to pull this off. It’s essentially independent journalism at a time where there wasn’t much in Chile, and the fact that this small crew (I read it was 5 people) got 20+ hours of film of perhaps the most important time in the history of Chile, as well as some of its most important figures, is some kind of miracle. And there is some truly stirring stuff, nothing more than the cameraman who films his own murder. The stakes were indeed high.

And I know of nothing else like this. Is there another 260 minute independently made documentary of a coup or revolution? (I say independent in the sense that these people made this film for their own reasons, and not for the reasons of a news organization, a government or investors – to my knowledge.) I don’t know of one. And nobody can question the bravery of these people or the debt Chile and the world owes to them – perhaps more than any other cinema verite film (certainly any I’ve seen to date), this film shows the ‘ground truth.’

For all of the above reasons, this is a great film. But I have a few reservations:

  1. Firstly, the cinema verite approach focuses on “man on the street” type interviews and official statements, with some narration to give us (a little) context. Though the Chileans appear more knowledgeable than the people Toronto’s local Global News station chooses to put on my television, they are still just regular people and cannot provide context and are usually not even able to be that articulate. This is the problem with “man on the street” interviews. And the official spokespeople for Allende’s government, for those opposed to Allende’s government, and for Pinochet’s government post-coup are not particularly illuminating either. I know to distrust much of what is said, but I would like help interpreting it. So we are left with the narrator, who pops in and out of the film, giving us a great deal of context in certain situations and very, very little in others. The narration was clearly written for a Chilean audience and, worse, for a Chilean audience on one side of the situation. That brings us to the second, more problematic issue with the film.
  2. This film wears its bias on its sleeve. It is absolutely pro-Allende. And that is both refreshing (at least it’s not pretending to be objective) and problematic.
    • It’s problematic because it is not always entirely clear as to why Allende and his supporters are in the right. Whether or not that is actually true requires research on the part of the viewer. And that’s a problem for me.
    • But the bigger problem to me is that this film should thoroughly convince us that the coup is wrong. But we are plunged into the 1973 election without any context – I am guessing they were initially making this film for a Chilean audience – and we never know whether or not the claims of the opposition are accurate. This is not to defend the coup in any way, shape or form, but rather to ask if any of the opposition’s criticisms of Allende were valid. Because the film doesn’t tell me either way and I am supposed to side with Allende because his government was “democratically” elected.
    • Of course, this leaves out a fundamental half of all liberal democracies, and that would be the liberal part. I don’t care how ‘democratic’ a government is, if it’s not liberal at the same time – I am using this term in the classic sense, folks – then it is not worth defending and it might actually be dangerous. (This is the ‘tyranny of the majority’ we’ve heard so much about.) So my question here is “to what extent was Allende acting within his constitutional role?” The movie doesn’t answer that question and so I am left with a nagging feeling that this otherwise remarkable film might be not entirely trustworthy as the record of the 1973 coup.

That being said, I am not sure I can talk myself out of a 10/10 rating. The sheer importance and scope of this movie is incredible.


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