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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.