The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues
SEPT 2023 Issue

Fifty Years Later—Chilean Cinema Before the Coup

The films produced by Chile Films—a government-funded production company—were vocal of Chilean issues yet to be solved.

<em>Un sueño como de colores</em>, 1972. Director: Valeria Sarmiento. Director of Photography: Jorge Müller. Courtesy Cineteca de la Universidad de Chile.
Un sueño como de colores, 1972. Director: Valeria Sarmiento. Director of Photography: Jorge Müller. Courtesy Cineteca de la Universidad de Chile.

What can a country’s filmography say about the history of its own nation? Its twists and changes throughout the years sometimes happen due to global and local trends, as well as cultural and political revolution. Most of the time, history happens and art is left behind struggling; other times, it’s as if those images and sounds were seers, purveyors of a future that they maybe weren’t aware they were portraying.

The history of Chilean cinema is like a see-saw between those two states: from the years of imitating Mexican popular cinema of decades prior (between the forties and fifties) to the revolutionary work of the New Chilean Cinema (sixties and seventies). But when it comes to a particular moment in time, like the coup of September 11, 1973, there’s an inevitable tendency to see films released before that date with another lens.

Fifty years have gone by since one of the most heinous acts of the second half of the twentieth century: the bombing of the government palace to provoke the destitution of a democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, by Chile’s own military (with the support of the US government), and the instauration of one of the bloodiest dictatorships of South America.

In the months before that catastrophe there was tension in the air, and the best portrait of that moment is Patricio Guzmán’s La batalla de Chile (The Battle of Chile, 1975-79), a trilogy of documentaries released in exile and which has now received a 4K restoration that will play at BAM from September 8–14. While essential and a must watch for anyone interested in how a camera can capture history in the making, there’s more to find on what was being made in those months in Chile.

<em>Un sueño como de colores</em>, 1972. Director: Valeria Sarmiento. Director of Photography: Jorge Müller. Courtesy Cineteca de la Universidad de Chile.
Un sueño como de colores, 1972. Director: Valeria Sarmiento. Director of Photography: Jorge Müller. Courtesy Cineteca de la Universidad de Chile.

Chilean cinema was flourishing, riding the wings of acknowledgment directors from the New Chilean Cinema had received at Cannes and Locarno. Raúl Ruiz, Helvio Soto, and Miguel Littin, among others, had made their mark and were advancing the local scene into new and exciting frontiers, due in part to support from Salvador Allende and the empowering of Chile Films, a government-funded production company, with high aims and goals to become a powerhouse of cinematographic production in Latin America.

But Chile Films also owed its duty towards the Chilean government, carrying out specific mandates, like broadcasting the advancements and triumphs of Salvador Allende’s policies through educational films. Although some could quickly define these as simple government propaganda, they still maintained a particular creativity and remained vocal of issues that had yet to be solved.

This can be seen in the collective work La defensa del agro (Defending Agriculture, 1973), a 10-minute documentary in color about the advances in agriculture due to the reforms made by Salvador Allende years prior. The short opens with children from the countryside painting on sheets of paper what they do to help their family through daily tasks at their homestead: feeding the chickens, milking cows, cutting wood, etc. The farmers now own the land they work on, and there’s an inherent promise by the children that they’ll work it fruitfully for the benefit of the rest of the nation.

That childish outlook (which is completely aligned with Allende’s aims) is put in contrast with the abundant footage of advanced agricultural machines being introduced. The socialist advancement of Chilean economy and society was hand in hand with a complete technological turnover of most of the labor, something that the original landowners didn’t want to do and something that the film showcases through text on screen, lambasting the “momios” (“mummies”, a derogatory term for right-wing people in general) for misusing the land for so many decades.

La defensa del agro is accompanied with music by Dúo Coirón, a band that was part of the Nueva Canción Chilena, a genre of its own that mixes folkloric music with trova and recitado, which was mainly a medium for protest songs since the 1960s. This gives the documentary a “musical” vibe, as the words of the song guide the images and say the most potent slogans regarding how the government has helped these people enter a new era that’ll enrich the entire country.

A similar musical vein can be found in Fernando Balmaceda’s Un crimen tan comentado (Such a Commented Crime, 1973), also produced by Chile Films. The 12-minute documentary is entirely narrated in song by Héctor Pavez and Mauricio González, chronicling the awful state of the “poblaciones callampas” (mushroom settlements)—illegal occupations of public or private land by people in search of a place to call home, settlements where the poorest people of Chile lived.

The film recreates in black and white an awful crime that happened in one of those “poblaciones” that impacted all of society and their view of their inhabitants—the raping and killing of two women at the hands of two settlers. The narrating song is harsh and blames “the parents and society too,” but it comes to a halt during the scene of the crime. That moment in the film arises as one of the most brutal portrayals of violence in Chilean cinema thus far, surpassing the one seen four years earlier in El Chacal de Nahueltoro (Jackal of Nahueltoro, 1969), a seminal film of New Chilean Cinema about another murderer of popular extract.

But beyond the recreation, Un crimen tan comentado switches to color, showcasing the “población” trying to outgrow the terrible crime and the images of it that are being showcased across all graphic media in the streets. We see kids being fed in nursery homes, warm, resting, and having fun with accompanying adults being treated by doctors; alongside them, we see the men and women of the “población” working hard, building, trying to make their life and place to live better every day, all of this while the song exults the good work that the Allende government is doing to provide the necessities for all of it to happen. While that can be seen as propagandistic, it’s interesting to see how it doesn’t shy away from the horrors of the crime that people from that same “población” committed. It just wishes for a better future, thanks to all the help that’s coming.

Cancionero popular (Popular Songbook, 1973), directed by Douglas Hübner and Jorge Ianiszewski, was another attempt by Chile Films to portray popular music of the time, mostly from the Nueva Canción Chilena. The fifteen-minute film is a strange animal, as it starts out as a TV reportage (journalist with a microphone in hand included) to then jump into a photographic montage of horrific events in the recent past of Chile with a protest song by Isabel Parra in the background. The film transforms into a rudimentary animation that shows Scrooge McDuck as a vulture-vampire representing the United States, extracting and destroying Chile’s resources.

This documentary, which seems to constantly lose its aim of showcasing popular music, is the one closest to portraying the sentiment of the time before the coup, as its focus moves away from the music and into public denunciation of the “momios” and their intent of removing Allende from power. But, at the same time, it is its most naïve, as at one point it proudly announces “the people and the armed forces are the same thing.” It’s filled with warnings and predictions, and in a bittersweet note it ends with a crowd singing in protest the song “Venceremos,” the triumphant hymn of Allende’s government.

But maybe the most impressive work of 1973 is a newsreel, of all things, also produced by Chile Films. Directed by Eduardo Labarca, Chile Junio 1973 (Chile June 1973, 1973) is an impressively edited work surrounding the “tanquetazo,” an attempted coup that happened on June 29, 1973. The film opens with images of chaos and mayhem in the center of Santiago as tanks roam the streets, but then it cuts to an on-screen text which says “all of this started much before,” as it starts to recount the climate of crisis and civil war that was happening in Chile for the past few months.

The film showcases fast cuts, moving camera shots, text on screen, and psychedelic music by Chilean musicians, as it moves between protests for and against Allende’s government. The images of the massive protests in the streets in support of a government are incredible to see, as the joy in the faces of the workers is palpable, making it an emotional tale that encompasses an entire country.

But, at the center of the film is maybe one of the most harrowing images ever put to film: the last footage shot by Leonardo Henrichsen, an Argentinian cameraman that on the day of the “tanquetazo” was shot by the military. We are witness to a man seeing his own death through the lens of a camera. This footage was famously used in Patricio Guzmán’s The Battle of Chile years later, but here it uses a slow-motion effect to repeat it, giving it the time and respect that such an impactful image deserves. A series of soldiers shoot at the camera, the image wobbles, and suddenly it falls apart. It’s the most powerful way of representing the horror of that moment.

Obviously, the attempted coup in June didn’t succeed, and the film celebrates it, but seeing it now, it’s all bittersweet. It feels like a victory song seconds before the defeat, especially when we see the happy faces of the people in a march celebrating that the attempted coup failed. The national anthem sounds loud as the film fades out. Shivers. This newsreel was shown in cinemas in Chile in July, but was quickly put out of circulation by the military as they thought it would cloud the investigation of what had happened that day. Sometimes, the darkest jokes write themselves.

<em>Un sueño como de colores</em>, 1972. Director: Valeria Sarmiento. Director of Photography: Jorge Müller. Courtesy Cineteca de la Universidad de Chile.
Un sueño como de colores, 1972. Director: Valeria Sarmiento. Director of Photography: Jorge Müller. Courtesy Cineteca de la Universidad de Chile.

Chile Films had also been supporting more eclectic and experimental work, like Un sueño como de colores (A Dream as in Colours, 1972) directed by Valeria Sarmiento, Raúl Ruiz’s life-long collaborator and partner. This ten-minute masterful work opens with a striptease dancer declaring her work as art, and in her words, you can feel a sense of self-love, an unabashed defense of what she does, something no doubt progressive in Chilean society at the time. This contrasts with the life of another striptease dancer who does it to support her two daughters and mother, with whom she lives. You can feel the strength of Sarmiento’s gaze as she brings attention to the way the dancer speaks, with an uninterrupted take as she acknowledges the violence that she suffered at the hand of her daughter’s father. At the same time, we feel Sarmiento’s distance as the dancer follows on and feels a sense of empowerment, but only now that she can “buy things by herself.”

Mixing black-and-white and color footage, this incredible film showcases a less reportage/educational approach to documentary in Chile, but uses many of its similar elements. Here there was a promise of an evolution beyond a cinema that was absolute in its support and usefulness to Salvador Allende’s government, but instead that took the freedom and revolution that it afforded to make truly progressive and diverse art.

Many of the directors mentioned went on to make no other films after these. Following the coup, Chile Films experienced an intervention and went through a purge distilling it of its “communist” elements. What came next was an era where every filmmaker and artist was silenced, censored, exiled, or killed. This is what they left us fifty years later: some hope, some naiveté, but above all, the portrait of a nation before it was changed forever.


Jaime Grijalba

Jaime Grijalba is a freelance film critic (MUBI, Kinoscope), and filmmaker. He's been part of the Locarno Critics Academy. He's currently fan-translating the Raul Ruiz diaries.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues