Monday, December 7, 2009

Guzmán's BATTLE OF CHILE makes DVDebut from Icarus -- at long last

Tomorrow marks the release of THE BATTLE OF CHILE, a storied documentary never yet seen on DVD in North America, and one seldom shown theatrically over the past de-
cades (the film was begun in the months lead-
ing up to the overthrow of the Salvador Allen-
de regime in Chile). Patricio Guzmán (below) and his five-man crew had been filming events across the country during the nine months prior to the bombing of the Presidential Palace and Allende's death on September 11, 1973.

Though TrustMovies imagined that he knew much about the coup (and what led to it) that toppled this democratically elected socialist government -- the first of its kind in South America -- watching this three-part, nearly-four-and-one-half-hour film (plus Guzmán's hour-long 1997 documentary Chile, Obstinate Memory, which is included in this new package) made him realize how very little he actually did know.

During the mid-to-late 1960s, my best friend here in New York City was a Chilean named Tomás Agosin, a very young man (a teenager when I met him -- but the smartest, most mature teen I had ever known) whom I first encountered in my job at the then-titled Philharmonic Hall, now known as Avery Fisher Hall. With his cherubic face and blond, curly locks, he really did look like an angel -- on crutches (he'd had a leg amputated above the knee due to a childhood cancer). Because Tomás was underage, I had to purchase the ticket he used to gain entry into the theater to see the Mike Nichols' movie of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (he loved it -- and probably understood it -- better than I). Back in Chile, Tomás' family were friends with the Allende family, and I remember how excited he was at the election of Salvador to the Presidency. "Now," he told me with great hope, "things will finally be accomplished for all the people of Chile." It was via Tomás that I received some early tutoring on the many benefits of Socialism.

By the time of the assassination/claimed suicide of Allende (above), my wife and I had moved to California. I knew how distraught Tomás was from phone calls, and it was via him, a few years later, that I first learned about The Battle of Chile, which I determined to see someday soon. More than 30 years later, and with Tomás dead 18 of those (his obituary is here), I finally have. Worth the wait, the film almost seems to have more to say now -- to America and all the so-called western democracies, about the tools and tactics of both the right and left -- than may have been perceived at the time.

Part 1: The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie, running 96 minutes, is chock-a-block with information, and while some of it I already knew, I learned much more about the food shortages, work stoppages, Transporter's Union and the bus strike -- and especially about the near-constant involvement of the U.S. government in everything from backroom policy-making to the deliberate withholding of the machine parts necessary to keep the country on its feet. Further, important incidents such as that of the Chilean military (below) suddenly declaring itself "autonomous" lends a very dark cast to the proceedings.

The right wing, out to prove in what terrible condition the country is, does everything it can to bring that condition to fruition: fomenting a strike of the copper miners, then rushing to help the striking workers. The narrator, who usually keeps some distance from out-and-out political speechifying cannot resist pointing out that never before in the history of the country have the wealthy shown any solidarity with or given help to the workers. As the country divides into two clear camps (though Allende won his election in a three-way-split), it is clear that things cannot continue on this path.

One of the points the documentary brings home, perhaps not intentionally, is how surprising it is that the Allende government lasted even as long as it did. Part 1 concludes as a cameraman records his own death during the first, unsuccessful coup attempt by a small part of the military.

Part 2: The Coup d'Etat, running 88 minutes, begins with that attempted coup, and then details the uses of the military by the right wing leading up to the final coup. Interviews with countryside peasants make it clear that they understood all too well what was happening, urging Allende to arm them so that they can protect themselves -- and him. We see the military insinuating itself into the minds of the people with continuous "raids" to find hidden "arms." None are ever discovered (does this have a familiar Iraq ring?) but the raids continue, with the military eventually using tanks (below).

Strikes continue, too, funded by, as we now know, the CIA, and the collusion of the right wing, the military and the media (owned by the right), which gives credence and approval to all that is going on. What we are seeing here is how a nasty but very powerful right-wing fringe can co-opt the middle class and use power, violence, religion, the media and marketing to destroy a popularly-elected government that, even now, seems to have the majority of voters on its side. But the real secret of success is found in the right's winning over the middle class by provoking fake food shortages and continuous strikes that make "normal" life more and more difficult for the, as usual, somewhat lazy bourgeoisie.

We see a lot -- more than we need, actually -- of the populace parading about and screaming slogans rather than doing the necessary footwork that might have held up to proper ridicule those reponsible for the lack of food and the many strikes, if not to outright prosecution. Yet Allende and his cabinet consistently refused to go against the country's Constitution or do anything illegal. They won their election legally, and they want to keep their legality. But, in similar fashion to the government of our own Bill Clinton, Allende's party did not control the national congress and so was stymied time and again by its refusal to give him what he needed to govern properly. The documentary, perhaps without meaning to, makes it clear that without the support of this majority, and with no military strength and no ability to arm the people against the generally right-wing military, there was probably never real hope for the success of the Allende government.

What was needed was armed strength, and if that sounds something like a military dictatorship of the Cuban sort, so be it. On the basis of my reading of The Battle of Chile, there was really no other choice.

Part 2 ends with the fall of Allende, which you most likely have seen in other forms by now. While I was expecting Part 3: The Power of the People (running just under an-hour-and-a-half) to shame the resulting post-Allende government, and tell us of the terrors of the Pinochet regime, it does nothing of the sort. (You'll have to rent or purchase It's Raining on Santiago to find out more about this.) Instead, it goes back to the beginning of the Allende time in (some) power, showing how the new system worked, thought, changed and began to assume new responsibilities.

It takes awhile to get used to this part, due to a lot more slogan-shouting and the like, which looks foolish in retrospect and didn't, as it turns out, do a whole lot of good. Any group can shout slogans (as the multi-hour history of the Spanish Civil War on film showed us, via the FSLC, a few years back), but the workers taking over land and entire estates is another matter, and some of that goes on here, too.

After awhile, something odd happens in this film: You become aware of how seldom are seen any women (the few we do see speaking are more often from the right wing; the ones on the left seem members of marches and protests -- see below). Almost all the visuals and voices come via the guys. Granted this is the 1970s, but feminism was all over the place then, so it's easy to speculate about how backward and macho was South American -- even Chile, long the most "progressive" in the group -- at this time.

Part 3 also goes into how the communes worked, and their penchant for self-criticism and disagreement. We see the people's stores, which in 1973 managed to serve some 300,000 of Santiago's working class families, at a time when most of the commercial stores were able to make more money serving the black market. Worker power in the mines and factories are also explored in this section.

One of the most interesting pieces shows the education of the workers about the need for proper planning: how to make each area of work more productive, and how Capitalism actually works against their interests. While some of this is boring -- and delivered in a tiresome manner -- other sections prove intelligent and insightful, particularly one teacher who really seems to know what he is talking about and communicates this with passion and savvy. Even so, it is clear from even this final section that many on the left sensed a tragic ending to Popular Power -- with the inability of the Allende government's continuing to advance. "It's now or never, comrade!" one fellow insists. And never, it was.

At least until Chavez appeared in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia. After watching The Battle of Chile, one can only wonder what Allende might have thought about these two and how they have grasped and held onto their power -- and how much better (or not) is their country because of it.


Also included in the new Battle of Chile package is Guzmán's lovely work CHILE, OSBSTINATE MEMORY. Though we don't get any sense of what Chilean life was like under the Pinochet regime, post-Allende, in this hour-long documentary one of the things we do observe is how the history of Chile was kept from its own population for nearly 20 years. Consequently, young people had only the "victor's history" to learn from. Watching a group of them respond to a showing of the documentary is both appalling and moving, as the kids go one direction or the other, justifying what happened or being shocked and moved by this new information.

We also see one of the guards who defended Allende, and was shot for his trouble (he lived!) talk about then and now. Guzmán tries to get his interviewees to speak about their memories, which is often difficult to do. One of them compares memory to a wound: "Touch it too soon and it becomes infected like some horrible thing." Another says, "If you continue to suffer, amnesia will come automatically. But it you can get over it -- turn it into memory -- then your recall can return."

Under Pinochet, everything was repressed: no films, photos, music of the Allende time was allowed. Children were not even taught about this period. We meet that teacher who was so effective in the classroom in Part 3, now an old man and a university professor. We also learn at last about the man to whom The Battle of Chile is dedicated: Jorge Müller Silva (above), and what happened to him, who became, with his girlfriend, one of Chile's "disappeared." This becomes one of the little documentary's most moving segments. That, and Allende's widow, Hortensia Bussi (below), as she speaks quietly about then and now.

I don't see how you can watch the 4-1/2 hour of The Battle of Chile without finishing off with Chile, Obstinate Memory. The latter is such a kindly, heatlhy salve for the former.

On sale tomorrow, December 8, the four-disc package includes a 16-page booklet that offers a new and excellent introduction to Patricio Guzmán's work by Cecilia Ricciarelli, and Pauline Kael's January '78 review of the film -- and the last disc also features a 22-minute interview with Patricio Guzmán conducted by Brazlian film critic José Carlos Avellar. It is available from Icarus, Amazon and elsewhere. You can also rent each disc, individually, from Netflix or Blockbuster -- but you won't get that terrific little booklet.

All photos above courtesy of Icarus Films.


Anonymous said...

First DVD release in North America that is. This has been released on DVD earlier in France and Chile.

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks for this, Anon. I shall correct my post now, and also add a bit about the DVD extras, which I forgot to do yesterday....