Radical Memory & Willful Amnesia in the Films of Patricio Guzman
Patricio Guzman. [o]
Start with grainy, black-and-white images of fighter jets swooping over a city, bombing and strafing a stately neo-classical building. The planes blast the building’s façade. The camera wobbles, then steadies, as if the filmmaker must conquer his shock to bear witness to this historic moment: September 11, 1973. Chile’s armed forces are attacking La Moneda, the presidential palace in the nation’s capital, Santiago, a violent coup that will leave its democratically-elected president, Salvador Allende, dead, and inaugurate a 17-year military dictatorship of terror and torture. We are watching the cold-blooded murder of a democracy.
Precisely eighteen years later, on September 11, 2001, Americans grappled with their own similar shock at the surreal sight of commercial airliners plowing into New York’s World Trade Center towers. Many people tried to conquer their sense of disbelief with repeated viewings of this willful destruction, as if something might change, staring over and over at the impacts that shattered their sense of order and security. The emotional devastation was similar in both countries, complicated in Chile because the moral and political catastrophe was an inside job, perpetrated by the Chilean military against its own people on behalf of local and foreign corporate interests, abetted by the CIA.
The country was in a buoyant, joyful mood. Workers, farmers and students were on the march, singing their support for the dream of social and economic equality.
Filming that violent upheaval in Santiago forever changed Patricio Guzman. His obsession to locate truth and meaning in memory would propel him on an odyssey of forty-odd years and the creation of eight films (thus far) into historical, spiritual and cosmic byways, to create one of the epic cinematic achievements of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Guzman probes the political and emotional rubble left by the dictatorship to puzzle out how such horrors could have happened, making his country’s identity crisis his own. He endeavors to unearth Chile’s lost soul, buried like some idealized Atlantis beneath a superficial consumer culture and a smog of willful amnesia. His explorations long since transcended their original political premises as Guzman’s cinematic reach has morphed from journalism into poetry.
Come see the blood in the streets
the blood in the streets
come see the blood
in the streets!
THE BATTLE OF CHILE
When Patricio Guzman returned to his native Chile from Europe in the early 1970s during Allende’s presidency, he had come to record the future. The air was electric with possibility. The country was in a buoyant, joyful mood. Workers, farmers and students were on the march, singing and demonstrating their support for the dream of social and economic equality in “a kind of permanent mobilization.” Caught up in this intoxicating mood, Guzman and several young friends got hold of a 16-millimeter camera. They had no money and a very limited amount of film. They had to adopt a “battle plan” to economize on film, because there was so much going on. Allende’s campaign for re-election to the presidency brought out ecstatic supporters and angry, violent detractors.
Guzman called up journalists each morning to find out what was happening that day, then decided where the film crew had to be. The filmmakers concentrated on important centers of action like union halls or the chambers of Parliament. Guzman also chose to film “invisible events,” to catch what happened before and after meetings or strikes or demonstrations covered by news media. To save film the crew only shot snippets of meetings.
Allende and Pinochet . . . Hoping to chronicle the social changes Allende had set in motion, Guzman soon found himself inside a different story. [o]
Above all, they were unobtrusive: “We were four kids on the fringes…we were nobodies.” Their relative invisibility allowed them access to seminal moments of struggle and contention on both the political right and the left. We get intimate glimpses of crucial union meetings, demonstrations, confrontations and outbreaks of violence. One Chilean man in the street says: “Civil war is inevitable. The bourgeoisie against the proletariat.”
Guzman intended to make a straight-forward documentary about the presidency of Salvador Allende, who was, in 1970, the first democratically elected Marxist in Latin America. He hoped to chronicle the social changes Allende had set in motion. But he quickly found himself inside a different story: the massive attempt by Chile’s corporate owners — fueled by the CIA — to destabilize and overthrow the Allende regime to restore their own power and privilege.
Allende promised increased economic equality for the working majority. He confiscated huge tracts of land and divided them up among small farmers. He nationalized banks and major industries, including copper mines owned by foreigners. These policies offended the managerial class and drew down the capitalist ire of the United States. Using the CIA, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger promoted the military coup that abolished the idealistic experiment, killed Allende, destroyed Chilean democracy for a generation and left permanent scars on the Chilean psyche. Before that coup, the U.S. had tried various expensive strategies to prevent Allende’s election and re-election.
Henry Kissinger was a man who purposely scuttled the Paris Peace Talks with Vietnam, prolonging the U.S.-Vietnam War for an additional four years, costing tens of thousands of lives on both sides, simply to advance his own career plans to insinuate himself into Nixon’s White House. As he famously remarked about Chile: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”
Guzman and his small film crew bore witness to the massive civil unrest fomented by the CIA. His cameras did not avert their lenses from the gathering catastrophe. When the votes were counted in 1973 and Allende’s majority increased, despite the forces arrayed against him, his enemies dropped all pretense of legality and opted for military action. Guzman’s chronicle of social change turned into a horror film. The U.S. boycott and the nationwide CIA-financed transport strike frustrated Allende’s efforts to transform Chilean society. Guzman gives us the ominous information that “Since 1950, more than four thousand Chilean officers have been trained by the USA” and that “U.S. military aid to Chile since Allende’s term began is $45 million, more than thirty percent of the total military aid in the past forty years.”
We have already seen the bombing of La Moneda that begins Guzman’s film. The hopeful euphoria of Allende’s supporters, the majority of the country’s population, has already been crushed before our eyes. This inescapable fact bestows a tragic irony on the events in The Battle of Chile. We already know that the dreams of the common people are foredoomed. Hundreds of thousands of people gather in front of La Moneda to cheer Allende’s re-election with the rhyming chant: “Allende! Allende! El pueblo se defiende!” (“Allende! Allende! The people will defend you!”). Knowing what was coming we recognize this exuberant bravado as a tragic, wishful impossibility.
Part One of Guzman’s The Battle of Chile trilogy ends with a botched dress rehearsal for the coup d’état. On June 29, ten weeks before the coup, an army regiment stages a tank attack on the presidential palace. Neither the courts nor the legislature utter a word of protest. When no other forces arrive to back up the attackers, they are repulsed by palace guards and military loyalists.
Guzman fell into a depressed, paralyzed state, facing at last the meaning of his own exile.
The film slams to a halt with the murder of the Swedish cameraman filming this attack. An officer points his gun directly at the lens — through which we, the viewers, are looking — and fires. The camera tumbles out of focus. The second film begins with this false coup, in which twenty-two people died. Now we see the inexorable day by day march of events toward the murderous denouement, the moves and counter-moves of the left and right.
Guzman’s sympathies are clear, but his camera keeps an unblinking cinematic vigil on both sides of the struggle, a dispassionate view of the passion and increasing entropy that leads to the fatal treason with which the modern history of Chile ends and begins. Knowing where all this is going makes it hard to watch. Earnest meetings of unionists, poor barrios organizing to provision the people in the absence of food distribution, the desperate calls to arm the workers, are all for nought, as the military tightens its grip before the fatal strike.
The Battle of Chile: Part Two returns yet again to that unavoidable moment, as Allende refuses the offer of the coup leaders to fly out of the country. Defiant in his last radio speech, he says “Viva Chile! Viva al pueblo. Viva los trabajadores!” (Long live Chile. Long live the people. Long live the workers.) Again planes bombard the palace. Allende orders everyone else out but elects to die there with democracy.
from now I see him plunging to his death,
and behind him I feel the days of time close in…
His habit of dreams and measureless nights,
his disobedient soul, his prepared pallor
sleep with him at last, and he sleeps,
Because his passion collapses into the sea of the dead,
Violently sinking, coldly coalescing
Patricio Guzman was arrested after the coup and detained at the National Stadium, used by the military dictatorship as a place of imprisonment, torture and death. He had stashed the reels of his film project with his uncle, who managed to smuggle them out of the country on a Swedish ship to Europe. He says he worried every minute about the fate of his film. His cameraman, Jorge Muller, disappeared, but Guzman was detained only briefly and then released into exile. He spent the next years in Europe and Cuba editing The Battle of Chile. After finishing the first two films of the trilogy, Guzman took time off from editing to show them. Viewing the two films in New York in 1978, The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael called them “great”, “major”, “spectacular” — and said they should be shown more widely.
After two years of exhibiting Parts One and Two, Guzman edited the third part of The Battle of Chile. Part Three pulls back from the march of events to explain the first two parts in the context of the people’s power movement. We see how ordinary people come to political realizations and organize resistance to right-wing anti-government actions, in many ways ahead of the state.
Popular power confounds even leftist politicos. Emboldened by idealistic optimism, the workers prove resourceful, improvisational and politically sharp. Their rhetoric reflects a rising political consciousness about the struggle against the bourgeois capitalist state. They are very clear about the politics, the stakes and the role of the USA. The workers recognize that CIA sabotage is meant to destabilize Allende’s government and bring it down. They circumvent the food shortages with a system of “direct supply,” creating “people’s stores” in place of commercial ones. By mid-1973 direct supply is feeding 300,000 people in Santiago, about half the population.
Workers form “vigilance committees” to guard the factories. They create “industrial belts” of factories and businesses co-operating with one another to supply spare parts and cover shortages of manpower or supplies. Thirty-one industrial belts are operational by 1973, some of them with hundreds of companies. “The workers have opened their eyes,” says one union official. “We must be organized and united.” But another man says: “Many people sense a tragic ending, with Allende unable to advance…” Beyond the inescapable destruction of La Moneda, we see the beginning of the repression, as soldiers harass and round up people for detention, tragic portents of the massive human rights violations to come.
In 1978 with The Battle of Chile trilogy complete, Patricio Guzman fell into a depressed, paralyzed state, facing at last the meaning of his own exile, unable to concentrate or do any work. Not until the mid-1980s did Guzman return to making films, and those were not about the coup or the dictatorship.
The CIA's penchant for dabbling in offensive democracies . . . Pinochet and US Secreetary of State Henry Kissinger (under Richard Nixon) in Chile, June 1976. [o]
A SLEEP AND A FORGETTING
In 1987, under increasing international pressure, Augusto Pinochet called for a plebiscite to determine whether he should rule as President of Chile for another eight years. Surprisingly to him, the general was defeated and forced to schedule national elections. Before he left office, Pinochet appointed himself Senator for Life, with immunity from prosecution. Chile held a presidential election in December, 1989 for the first time in seventeen years, electing Patricio Alwyn. Pinochet remained Commander-in-Chief of the Army.
In 1996, after twenty-three years abroad, Patricio Guzman returned to Chile, hoping to locate people who had appeared in The Battle of Chile. By this time his cinematic trilogy had won various awards and been shown in thirty-seven countries. But never in Chile, where it was banned. Guzman filmed the events of his return, calling it Chile: Obstinate Memory. Guzman screens his Battle trilogy for several groups, asking some older people if they recognize anyone. Some point to certain figures in certain scenes. When Guzman asks where they are now, he often hears, “They disappeared.” One woman says her husband, son, a brother and two other family members “disappeared.”
When he shows the films to conservative Pinochet apologists, Guzman gets very different responses. One man says: “The best proof the CIA did not get involved is that the coup d’état was a perfect military success. The Chilean Army was more efficient in the fight against Marxism-Leninism than the USA… According to the left, two thousand one hundred thirty-two people have died in a seventeen-year period. It’s the anti-subversive fight with the least victims in all Latin America, including the United States.”
“The film shows the need for a coup,” says another man. “Allende had no control over his supporters. The film shows the support of the population, which is totally false. The military government led by Pinochet was the first to conquer communism in the world. He gave the first blow of the hammer to bring down the Berlin Wall.” They view the events on the screen through lenses of their own beliefs, as we all do. Theirs is not revisionist history, but an alternative one, an interpretation not open to discussion.
Guzman shows us his frail, elderly Uncle Ignacio (“my only remaining relative”) who talks about “memory” and “forgetting.” Ignacio sits at the piano and chips away at the opening bars of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” which he has long known but which now escapes him. Guzman closes in on his uncle’s shaky, age-spotted hands, hovering tentatively above the keys. “It’s not the piano’s fault,” says Ignacio. “It’s the piano player’s.”
Now we realize we have been hearing these opening bars of the “Moonlight Sonata,” halting and tremulous, throughout the soundtrack, emblematic at once of the power and the unreliability of memory, tenuous and fragmentary. We try and try to get it right. We know that we knew it all clearly once, but some essential thread, some vital through-line has been rent, and with it, part of our identity.
He shows The Battle of Chile to students, most of whom knew little or nothing of the events being depicted. Several are in tears. One girl says: “… I feel proud of my people, even though they failed. I’m proud of people who fought for an idea…”
“I feel I’m part of this process now,” says a young male student, “throwing out all the anger and shit inside me…” Another says: “I don’t know how men can be so barbaric. Killing a family because it doesn’t think like you...” An angry young man says: “I’ve stopped believing in everything. In Man, in military power, everything. I no longer believe. The dictatorship took that confidence from me. The past fifteen years have been extremely dark. They killed my brother.”
The film ends with Uncle Ignacio shuffling along a city street to the strains of a flawed, obsessive Moonlight Sonata on the soundtrack and surely in his head.
In the film Chile, Obstinate Memory, Guzman — here with with Hortensia Bussi, Allende's widow — visits with Chileans who experienced the coup first-hand. [o]
DANCING WITH THE DICTATOR
When Augusto Pinochet visited London in 1998 and found himself in unprecedented legal trouble, Patricio Guzman felt compelled once again to film the unfolding events in real time. But his movie, The Pinochet Case (2001), begins with historical and emotional context before plunging into Pinochet’s English drama. We start with a drive through the Atacama Desert, identified simply as “Northern Chile, 2001.” We join bereaved families in their grim search for the remains of their loved ones. “Each body that we find is a step toward social justice,” says one man. Bereft mothers and other relatives, shattered by their losses, stare vacantly at the vacant landscape that may contain their family members. A man points to the open desert: “This is Pinochet’s government, the murder of our eighteen-year-olds…”
We meet Juan Garces, a former Allende advisor, now a senior attorney in Madrid in the Pinochet case, as chief counsel for the victims. With help from the Catholic Church, Garces has assembled voluminous archives of persons who were jailed, tortured or disappeared during the dictatorship. Garces estimates that more than three thousand victims “disappeared.”
The dictatorship ended in 1990, but neither Patricio Alwyn, president of Chile from 1990 to 1994, nor Eduardo Frei, president from 1994 to 1998, tried to investigate any torture and murder claims. Because Chilean courts remain unable or unwilling to press these cases, a Spanish lawyer named Carlos Castriana claims the right to prosecute violators of human rights in Chile from Spain, on behalf of “human solidarity.” The Spanish Supreme Court decrees a worldwide right of prosecution and Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon takes the case.
The Spanish judiciary invites fifty or sixty witnesses to come from Chile to Spain to give their depositions. They go because “Chile will not hear us…” and testify over two years. These testimonies are the heart, the broken heart, of this film, and of the indictment against Pinochet. Guzman interviews some of the victims, who tell their harrowing tales. “Nelly” tells us that nineteen people in her family were detained, tortured or executed. She packed and repacked a suitcase for her arrested husband, who never came back.
Luisa: “My sons, eighteen and twenty, died at the hands of Pinochet’s police in 1985. My vengeance is living, getting up again, because I was dead. Getting up again, feeling like a person again…”
Gabriela: “After many electric shocks, it’s hard to move. You can’t make your arms and legs work, as if you’re a rag, and it must also be the terror you feel… It was the notion that we were not people. They could do anything they wanted…
They read the detainment order to him: he is wanted for the murder of Spaniards in Chile. The European Parliament upholds the order.
“This country still denies its history… because the dictatorship continues inside those who weren’t even part of the military. That is what hurts the most… So many people accept it and think that it is good that people were tortured, disappeared, killed. People say: ‘Pinochet’s problem is that he didn’t kill all the communists’ or those who thought differently…’
“People always ask, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to forget? You have to forgive.’ I’ve heard it so many times… The hardest thing was to watch someone else be tortured or dying next to you without being able to do a thing. I don’t think that ever leaves you… “
It is a single hour long as a vein
and between the acid and the patience of wrinkled time
separating the syllables of fear and tenderness
As he had every year since 1991, Augusto Pinochet came to London in 1998 to vacation at a five-star hotel and patronize expensive shops. While in London Pinochet had back surgery, after which he recuperated in a local hospital. Now began a series of legal moves and countermoves like a chess game. When he learns Pinochet is in London, Baltasar Garzon asks the British Home Secretary for permission to interrogate him, requesting that Pinochet be detained. The Spanish Supreme Court gives Garzon the go-ahead to seek Pinochet’s extradition.
Scotland Yard sends detectives to arrest Pinochet in his bed at the clinic. They read the detainment order to him: he is wanted for the murder of Spaniards in Chile. The European Parliament upholds the order. Outside the clinic, ecstatic Chilean demonstrators chant: “We want justice!” Pinochet hires a team of lawyers, who appeal to the British High Court for immunity for a former head of state. The Court reinvests Pinochet’s immunity.
Then, as Pinochet is packed and ready to leave Britain, the House of Lords revokes his immunity by a three to two margin. To fight his extradition to Spain, Pinochet rents a large house in a fashionable London suburb, half of which is occupied by police, keeping him under house arrest. A line of Chilean exiles maintains a vigil outside, beating drums, chanting and demonstrating.
The tyrant’s house today has a presence
Grave as an immense angel of stone
The tyrant’s house today has a visitor…
a mother goes through the tyrant’s house,
a mother of weeping, of vengeance and flowers…
she will look eternally into the tyrant’s eyes
until she fixes them in mortal mourning.
Crowds in the streets . . . "It is a territory redolent with recognition, of our humanity and inhumanity, our hopes and disappointments." [o]
As Spain works to extradite Pinochet from Britain, witnesses swell the archives of accusations to thirty-five thousand pages of testimony. Victim after victim describes the dreadful torture. “Ofelia” was kept blindfolded and starved to the point of death. “Cecilia” spent eleven years in jail, enduring electro shocks and other torture. She describes the horror of being forced to watch the three-day beating of a twenty-one year-old man until he died. “The worst thing was hearing the screams of others…”
Margaret Thatcher visits Pinochet at his house for a media event. As the cameras roll, Thatcher tells him, “I am very much aware that it was you who brought democracy to Chile.” Of course it was Pinochet who ended forty-eight years of democratic rule in Chile with a murderous military coup. But never mind.
Thatcher also thanks the general for his help “during the Falklands campaign” against Argentina.
The judicial process allows Pinochet’s extradition, but his lawyers have one final maneuver. They ask the Chilean government to request medical exams for the old dictator. Then they appeal to the Home Secretary to let him return to Chile because of his fragile health. Britain acquiesces, and after eighteen months of legal skirmishing, Pinochet returns to Chile a free man. Juan Garces says polls show seventy percent of Chileans thought he should be tried.
Emboldened by Pinochet’s detention in Britain and his near-extradition to Spain, the Chilean judicial system begins at last to investigate the many alleged human rights abuses of his regime. Bodies have begun to appear, including twenty at Pisagua, one hundred and twenty-five in a mass grave at the Santiago cemetery, another fifteen at La Serena, many of young children. Chilean courts lift Pinochet’s immunity. Interviewed by a judge, Pinochet denies all charges, blaming his subordinates for any excesses.
In January 2001 the military confesses to killing one hundred eighty Allende supporters and dumping most of their bodies in the sea. Pinochet is formally charged with murder and kidnapping and placed under house arrest. Gabriela has the last word about the importance of a trial: “Not just [for] Pinochet but all the torturers and all those who agreed with it, those who even today remain in power and try to create a blanket of forgetfulness. Their strength of memory will help us heal. That’s why it’s important to create a collective memory, so we can live now and build a future…”
Pinochet ultimately avoided trial and died in bed at 91 in 2006.
In his film Nostalgia for the Light Guzman sees conflict in a much larger context of space and time. [o]
In 2004, Patricio Guzman decided to approach the modern history of Chile through the biography of the martyred president. “Salvador Allende marked my life,” says Guzman, “I would not be who I am if he had not incarnated the utopia of a just and free world in my country at that time…" In words and pictures in Salvador Allende, Guzman rehearses Allende’s remarkable life. Born of a well-to-do family in Valparaiso in 1908, he learned about the struggles of the working class from a leader of the shoemaker’s union there, as a childhood friend recalls. Allende went to medical school.
In 1929, as an M.D., he was co-founder of the Chilean Socialist Party. In 1938, aged thirty, he became Minister of Health. Allende passed a wide range of progressive social reforms, including safety laws protecting factory workers, higher pensions for widows, maternity care, and free lunch programs for schoolchildren. Edward Korry, the former U.S. Ambassador to Chile at the time of the coup, says that the CIA gave $2.7 million for a propaganda campaign to oppose Allende’s 1964 campaign for the presidency. The specter of Castro loomed large. Trying to scare voters about totalitarian communism (e.g., with photos of tanks on the street), the CIA ended by enabling totalitarian rule in Chile, albeit with a fascist, not a communist face, one more palatable to capitalism.
Allende served in the senate and ran for president four times. By the time he was elected in 1970 he’d been campaigning for twenty years. After the election, according to Korry, top Chilean generals met with the U.S. military attaché and said, What would you like us to do? Using Chilean officers, the CIA assassinated General Rene Schneider, head of the Chilean Army, a few days before Allende took office. Schneider was Allende’s major military supporter, an advocate of no military interference in government. Nixon sent weapons via diplomatic pouch.
At his inauguration, Allende says: “We will build a real democracy, for and with the people, not just for the few, as in the past…” Guzman shows us some Battle footage as he recalls Allende’s Agrarian Land Reform. We see demonstrations, dancing and celebration. Keeping his promises, Allende nationalizes banks, factories and mines.As his camera pans the streets of modern Santiago, Guzman says: “I feel like a stranger in a hostile environment. I can’t forget how the dictatorship crushed life, buried democracy, and imposed money and consumerism as the only values…”
Late in 1972 Allende addresses the United Nations. He denounces the trans-national corporations. “We face a real conflict between multinationals and governments,” Allende tells the crowded chamber. “Governments are no longer in control of their fundamental decisions regarding politics, economics or the military. This is because multinationals are not dependent on the state. They operate without assuming their responsibilities, not controlled by any Parliament. They show no instance of the common interest. The whole political structure of the world is weakening. The big transnational corporations are hurting the interests of developing countries, and developed countries too…”
Allende receives a prolonged standing ovation.
Guzman alternates Battle footage of Allende’s political conflicts with modern commentary by elderly Allende supporters, recounting what went wrong.
“Despite U.S. funding, the Parliamentary block, the economic boycott, the terrorist propaganda, the right-wing hate, the middle-class panic, despite all these difficulties, Allende’s support grew,” says Guzman. “Thousands took to the streets with the hope to create a fair and free world. This remains a mystery. It surprises us even today.”
Once more we see Allende addressing a crowd with calm defiance: “I’m not an apostle or a messiah. I don’t have the traits of a martyr. I am a social fighter, doing his duty, the duty the people gave me. But… I will not step back… Only shooting me down will stop my will to accomplish the people’s platform…” Again we witness the bombing of La Moneda, that inescapable, ineradicable moment.
“La muerte no es el final,” says Guzman. Death is not the end.
For Guzman, astronomy does not offer a contrast with earthly matters, but rather, a continuum.
THE FAULT OF OUR STARS
If Patricio Guzman has not made peace with his past, he has come to see that conflict in a much larger context of space and time. In Nostalgia for the Light, (2010) an astronomer points out the calcium content of various heavenly bodies and tells him: “Some of the calcium in my bones was made shortly after the Big Bang. We live among the trees. We also live among the stars, the galaxies. We are part of the universe. The calcium in my bones was from the beginning…”
As his camera pans portraits of animals and faces scratched on boulders, Guzman says: “For ten thousand years this desert was a route for men and animals moving from the sierra to the sea… In the desert are buried men who died working the mines. The layers of miners and Indians are swept by a relentless wind…”
In a coincidence that Patricio Guzman must have appreciated, as Nostalgia for the Light was released, so were thirty-three Chilean miners, after being trapped nearly half a mile underground for more than two months. The rescue captured the attention of millions worldwide. Other bodies, buried much longer, still await their repatriation. Some unmoored souls still prowl the vast emptiness of Chile’s Atacama Desert, searching for remains of loved ones: brothers, husbands, children. Guzman’s camera pulls back from a tiny figure sifting the desert soil in her hands to reveal the immensity of the mountainous void around her. The ongoing quest of these women appears quixotic and hopeless. But Guzman informs us that: “During the shooting of this film, they found the body of a disappeared female prisoner in another part of the desert.” That is the kind of miracle these women seek.
Pinochet adopted the policy of “disappearances” from the Nazis as a way to spread terror among the Chilean population. That someone you know, someone you love, could vanish at any moment with no word and no remainder is deeply disorienting and devastating. At first many families of the disappeared waited for them to come back.
“Many never returned. Those who did were in pieces,” as one older Chilean man remembers.
“So that the bodies would never be found,” Guzman tells us, “the dictatorship dug them up and disposed of the remains elsewhere, or threw them into the sea.”
“Did they really throw them into the sea?” asks Violeta Berrios, a wiry, intense woman, her face weathered by the Atacama sun and wind. “At this point in my life — I’m seventy — I find it hard to believe what I’m told. They taught me not to believe… I’m not as strong as I was twenty years ago. I’m not as healthy… But hope gives you strength. Some people must wonder why we want bones. We want them so much!” Closure, however grim, is preferable to the uncertainty, the aching absence.
The largest concentration camp of the military dictatorship was Chacabuco, at the ruins of a mine in the Atacama. Guzman tells us: “The military didn’t have to build a camp. For cells they used the homes of the nineteenth century miners, at a time when the mining industry was like slavery. All the military had to do was add barbed wire.” The camera pans the wreckage of the abandoned prison. We see black and white photos of the nineteenth century miners at the site, their trapped, spectral faces. Then Guzman pulls back to show us the camp from a distance, surrounded by the mountainous desert, bathed in a golden light, perhaps of a sunset. Despite what we know of the hideous history here, Chacabuco looks lovely, its beauty and sadness inextricable.
Beauty and sadness permeate Nostalgia for the Light the way cloud shadows massage a landscape. The stark magnificence of the desert hides graves and crimes. But the clear skies of the Atacama offer cosmic relief, allowing astronomers spectacular views of the heavens. About the same time that Pinochet imposed his military dictatorship, Chilean astronomers and their foreign colleagues were constructing some of the largest telescopes in the world in the Atacama Desert. Guzman’s cameras worship and caress these giant, delicate machines.
The Battle of Chile production crew. Guzman is centre left. Cameraman Jorge Muller, centre right, was "disappeared". [o]
Like thousands of other Chileans, Guzman says he has always been fascinated by astronomy. As a child he learned the names of constellations and studied maps of the sky. The chance to look at and look through these ornate, powerful telescopes clearly intoxicates him. He shows us a gallery of psychedelic galaxies. But for Guzman, always making connections, astronomy does not offer a contrast with earthly matters, but rather, a continuum. These powerful instruments reveal our origins. We see a telescope with sixty antennas being built five thousand meters (more than sixteen thousand feet) above sea level. It will be able to register sound waves from billions of years ago, back to the Big Bang. Astronomy is all about memory too.
Everything we see in the skies is in the past. For Patricio Guzman, making films, “The camera resembles a telescope — one sees reality, one films it, and we see that reality doesn’t exist. And cinema is also a time machine. When one watches a film, the images unfold before us in the present, but they are already images of the past…”
Thanks to his cinematic investigations Guzman belongs to the families who lost loved ones to political repression and suffered unspeakable tortures for no reason. But he is also among the astronomers, looking beyond our planet in hope and wonder. And the archaeologists, not only of the Allende regime and its destruction and the horrific political consequences, but also of how far we have traveled as a species and what we have lost along the way. Born of tragedy and dashed hopes, Guzman’s career has blossomed like flowers planted on a grave. He has crafted a unique elegiac poetry all his own.
Decrying the forgetfulness of his culture and his countrymen, through his obstinate memory and persistent cinematic quest, Guzman has enlisted millions from beyond the geographic borders of his birth country and sworn them to citizenship in a Chile of his own creation. It is a territory redolent with recognition, of our humanity and inhumanity, our hopes and disappointments, our tragedies and possibilities.
“Those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moment,” says Guzman. “Those who have none don’t live anywhere.”
All poetry by Pablo Neruda. The Nobel Prize-winning poet, a staunch supporter of Salvador Allende, died twelve days after the 1973 military coup.
• “Come see the blood…” Neruda, “A Few Things Explained,” Selected Poems, translated by Ben Belitt, Grove Press, New York, 1961.
• “a kind of permanent mobilization” Guzman, interview appended to his film, Chile: Obstinate Memory, 1997.
• “from now I see him…” Neruda, “Joachim’s Absence,” Residence on Earth, translated by Donald D. Walsh, New Directions, New York 1973. 19.
• “The camera resembles…” Patricio Guzman, “Desert of the Disappeared,” interview with Chris Darke, British Film Institute, July 6, 2012.
• “New Yorker critic…” Pauline Kael, “The Battle of Chile,” The New Yorker, January 23, 1978.
• “With eyes barely opened…” Neruda, “Winter Encounter,” A New Decade: Poems 1958-1967, ed. Ben Belitt, Grove Press, New York, 1969, 235.
• “It is a single hour…” Neruda, “Furies and Sorrows,” Residence, 243.
• “The tyrant’s house…” Neruda, “Harsh Elegy,” Selected Poems, 351.
JAMES MCENTEER is an American journalist and writer now living in Quito, Ecuador. His most recent book is Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty Department.