LA BATALLA DE CHILE (The Battle of Chile)

There is a reason why Chilean exile Patricio Guzmán's monumental work The Battle of Chile has become one of the high-water marks of documentary filmmaking and is considered one of the finest, if not the finest, political film ever made. Its subject alone would call attention to it - the 12 months leading up to the September 1973 coup that deposed elected Chilean president Salvador Allende and sent the country into a two-decades-long oppressive military regime led by Augusto Pinochet, as seen from inside Chile by those who lived through it.

     But what makes The Battle of Chile's importance lies elsewhere. On one hand, the film - a nearly five-hour work divided into three separate parts - is essentially history as it happened, shot in the heat of the moment by a bunch of volunteer, enthusiastic young men and women idealistically yearning for Mr. Allende's socialist democracy to gain a foothold. On the other, it is also a meditation on history after it happened, having been edited at length over three years in exile from the many hours of footage shot during 1972 and 1973 - thus, reporting becomes historiography in front of the viewer's eyes. Mr. Guzmán refuses to reduce his mammoth assemblage to images to a simple narrative collage of events; everything in it is carefully considered, presenting a layered, multiple view of the events in roughly chronological order, the passage of time attributing a whole other reflexive, reflective layer over it, its focus on the experience inside Chile in a compacted period of time creating a potted history of Latin American politics, an accelerated syllabus of Politics 101 split into three approximately 90-minute "episodes".

     The first two - The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie and The Military Coup, finished respectively in 1975 and 1976 - function together as a diptych that narrates the events in order, starting at the coup then "rewinding" back to the events of October 1972. The third, Power to the People, finished in 1979, focuses on specific moments of the Chilean workers taking matters into their hands, and presents an abbreviated history of the chasm between political theory and political practice as those in charge begin to realise the enormity of their self-appointed task of remaking a whole way of governing. It's a remarkably alive portrait of a country given a reprieve to look into the future then forcefully dragged, kicking and screaming, back into the past against its will, doubling as a master class of political scheming as the rules of democracy are overtly flaunted by the opposition with excessive zeal in order to gum up the machinery.

     In a way, the film becomes the story of an impossible utopia whose desired class reconciliation was sabotaged at every step by an ultra-conservative right unwilling to engage with a wide-eyed, idealistic left; but it's a story that, though it may denounce the right, does not whitewash the mistakes of the left. By focusing on the daily events to create a composite picture of the larger time period, Mr. Guzmán's work becomes an affecting journey through its time, held aloft not as a shining example but presented in unassuming simplicity as a cautionary tale of the left's failure to recognise its idealism as insufficient to overcome a recalcitrant opposition; but also as a testimony for future reference of a shining moment where that idealism seemed enough to change the world. That the film is fully aware that it didn't and why it didn't, instead of saying "if only...", is what sets The Battle of Chile apart and makes it the work of art and of history that it has become with time.

Narrator: Abilio Fernández
Director: Patricio Guzmán
Screenwriter: Mr. Guzmán, with the collaboration of Pedro Chaskel, José Bartolome, Julio García Espinosa, Federico Elton, Marta Harnecker and Chris Marker
Camera: Jorge Müller Silva (b&w)
Music: José Antonio Quintano
Editor: Mr. Chaskel
Production: Mr. Guzmán, in collaboration with Mr. Marker, the Cuban Institute of Cinema and Film Arts, and the John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation

Part I: La Insurrección de la Burguesía (The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie)
Chile/France/Cuba/USA, 1975, 97 minutes

Part II: El Golpe de Estado (The Military Coup)
Chile/France/Cuba/USA, 1976, 86 minutes

Part III: El Poder Popular (Power to the People)
Chile/France/Cuba/USA, 1979, 79 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa retrospective sidebar preview screeners, Lisbon, October 19th and 20th 2013


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