25 January 2012

Review of 'The Battle of Chile'

Great films rarely arrive as unheralded as "The Battle of Chile" did in 1975, a two-part, three-hour-and-ten-minute documentary about the events leading to the fall of Chilean President Salvador Allende. This film doesn't even present itself with fanfare, and it takes a while to get going. It opens in March of 1973 with inquiring reporters asking people how they're going to vote in the coming congressional election, which amounts to a plebiscite on the Allende government. The election is taking place after Allende has been in office for over two years and has been trying to reorganize the society and move it toward Socialism within the framework of democratic government. His Popular Unity coalition was put into office with only a third of the popular vote, so he has been on shaky ground. His efforts to nationalize certain industries have brought on a squeeze from the banking and industrial community and from foreign interests (especially the United States), and Chile is suffering economic deprivations.

The interviews show us the colliding points of view in the country and the self-assurance of each group, but we don't have enough background information to sort out the material and we tend to look at it in human-interest terms, enjoying the faces, being amazed at the unembarrassed articulateness of the Chileans. The mikes are shoved at them and they talk; this goes on for a long time, and we seem to be getting no more than a bystanders' view of history. Up through the election - in which Allende makes a small gain (to 43.4 per cent of the votes), though the opposition bloc also makes a gain (to 54.6 per cent), and the result is a continuing stalemate - we have a sense of the limitations of photographic journalism when it comes to analyzing what's going on. Besides the man-in-the-street interviews, the film seems to give us only the public actions - the speeches, the violent confrontations, the mobs and meetings, the parades with workers chanting funny, dirty rhymed slogans - and none of the inner workings. Those are supplied by an English narrator (a woman), who keeps interpreting for us. She is concise in exactly the wrong way. We need to have groups identified and their positions explained. When the miners in the nationalized copper mines strike, we want to know the issues; she tells us that the less politically sophisticated workers were deceived by the Fascists, while "the more politically knowledgeable stay on the job." There may be considerable truth here; but this kind of thing can drive one a little crazy. She gives us a strict ideological account - almost a parody of Marxism - in which everything that happens is the result of the imperialists' and the industrialists' strategy.

There is no suggestion of any form of regimentation under Allende, yet his supporters talk in terms of "worker consciousness" and other standard formulations which make us wonder where the indoctrination is coming from. When the miners' strike against the government ends (the narrator tells us that it "falls apart"), Allende mobilizes the masses at a big rally and calls out, "Jump if you're not a Fascist!" - and a half-million people jump. It's a staggering image. But, oh, for a more open-minded narrator. We're told that the last strikers "have taken refuge at Catholic University." Who is it that they're taking refuge from - that benevolent papa pleading for a show of support? According to the film, any opposition to Allende is corrupt - as if there were no conceivable good reason to oppose him. Clearly, Allende, who isn't in control of most of the Army units, is hemmed in. The public transportation system is disintegrating: Chile can't get spare parts because of the American embargo. From that big rally on through the street violence that follows, Part I ("The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie") is terrifyingly well done. It concludes with newsreel footage from the camera of an Argentine who was photographing the skirmishes in the street. An Army man takes slow, careful aim right at us and kills the cameraman, and the image spins skyward. It's an intrusion for the narrator to say of that Army man, "This is the face of Fascism;" that's the voice of ideology, the diminisher.

Part II ("The Coup d'Etat") begins with that summer's insurrectionary right-wing violence against the government; rebel Army troops seize control of downtown Santiago and fire at the Presidential palace, but this attempted coup is put down in a few hours. Now the film gets to its central question: Can a society dedicated to constitutional law make the transition to Socialism peaceably? The Marxist argument has always been that violence comes not from the revolution but from the counter-revolution, and that the workers have to be prepared to defend the revolution by violent means. And Chile serves as a demonstration. There appears to be no way that Allende's legally constituted revolutionary government can move toward Socialism within a legal, democratic framework. It can't defend itself against the industrialists' counter-revolutionary moves unless it suspends constitutional guarantees, forms a people's militia, and claps the opposition in jail. (Could Allende do that without precipitating an immediate right-wing putsch? Maybe not, but in the view here that was his only chance.) The film leaps from one group to another, from meetings of the Chilean Congress to bombings to street demonstrations to workers' discussions. It shows the different elements in the explosive situation with so much clarity that it's a Marxist tract in which the contradictions of capitalism have sprung to life. At a union meeting, the faces are intense and involved, but there are divided, competing strategies among the left-wing groups that support the government, and the workers have a tremendous concern for legality. Meanwhile, Allende is desperately wheeling and horse-trading to get the congressional support he needs, and failing. We actually see the country cracking open. The inner workings are now so public that they can be photographed. Allende asks Congress to declare martial law - which would give him the power to appoint military personnel. It's his only chance of preventing another attempt at a military coup. He is refused, and that same day troops go into the factories, searching for weapons. The violence escalates while Allende's supporters argue whether they should be armed or not, and, step by step, the legal government is overthrown.

This documentary cross-section view of a collapsing government is surely unprecedented. Everybody in the country seems to know that a coup d'etat is coming, and people talk about it freely and coherently. No one seems apathetic, not even the middle-class women, who speak vigorously about how much they hate Socialism. Has there ever been a more articulate culture? Now we understand why the picture laid all that inquiring-reporter groundwork: everybody knows that it's just a matter of time, yet the people who have the most to lose can't get together enough to do anything. Then Allende's naval aide-de-camp, Captain Araya, is killed, and at the funeral the camera moves around solemnly, in closeup, scanning the high-ranking officers gathered there - General Augusto Pinochet among them - as if they were a sculptural group. This is the military brass of Chile shown in all its formality, and at a time of utter stillness. We see these handsome, well-coiffed heads in their dress-uniform collars and hats, and this funeral is the funeral of a society. It's like a classic passage in Tolstoy. We know from this frieze, a monument to the past, that there's no hope for Socialism in Chile. In July, the truck owners, funded by the C.I.A., begin their long strike, which paralyzes the distribution of food, gasoline, and fuel, and there is a call for Allende to resign. Instead, he holds another rally, and eight hundred thousand people, give or take a few, arrive in the afternoon and stick around into the night. But those people have no weapons. On September 11th, the Navy (in touch with United States destroyers that are standing by) institutes the coup d'etat, and the Air Force bombs the state radio station. We hear Allende say he won't resign. The palace is bombarded from the air. And then we see the chiefs of the junta on television, presenting themselves as the new government. They announce that they'll return the country to order, after three years of Marxist cancer.

How could a team of five - some with no previous film experience - working with limited equipment (one Eclair camera, one Nagra sound recorder, two vehicles) and a package of black-and-white film stock sent to them by the French documentarian Chris Marker produce a work of this magnitude? The answer has to be partly, at least: through Marxist discipline. The young Chilean director, Patricio Guzman, and his associates (all Chileans except for one Spaniard) had a sense of purpose. They considered themselves a collective, and they were making a work of political analysis. The twenty hours of footage they shot had to be smuggled out of the country; four of the filmmakers spent some time in custody, and the cameraman, Jorge Muller, hasn't been heard of since his imprisonment. The others fled separately, assembled in Cuba, and, together with a well-known Chilean film editor, Pedro Chaskel, and both Chilean and Cuban advisers, worked on the movie. (A planned Part III has yet to be completed.) There is still the sheer technical skill to account for - the quality of the sound, the camerawork that is discreet and mobile and live, and, above all, the editing, which is so smooth and unemphatic that it never calls attention to itself. Chaskel has an immensely subtle, fluid new technique; Part II has the effect of one long, continuous shot. He owes something to the Italian neorealists, but his other influences aren't easy to place - maybe the early Russians, though he gets the emotion without the shock cuts, in legato.

Patricio Guzman is, of course, the organizing force behind this production, and its controlling intelligence. He has said, in an interview with Julianne Burton (in the magazine Socialist Revolution, later reprinted in her book Cinema and Social Change in Latin America), that during the street battles he could anticipate what was going to happen and, standing next to the cameraman, tell him when to pan or lower the camera or raise it. That is, he was so attuned to the possibilities in the situation that it was almost as if he were directing the action; he could use the fiction-film methods that he had studied at film school in Madrid in the late sixties. But if the imagination here is Guzman's, so is the vise put on the material. The footage is so spectacular and so sensitively shot that one tends to laugh off the narrator's rigid, instructional approach, but it soaks in, because the whole film is structured to make the same analysis. When we listen to a fiery young leftist urging his comrades to arm in that summer of 1973, we can't help wondering if he's alive - or half alive - but Guzman doesn't encourage elegiac speculations. His is a no-nonsense, revolutionary approach; he is recording the political process as Marx and Lenin described it. That was how he and his group selected what to film: they worked from an outline. In "The Battle of Chile," the United States serves as the imperialist enemy that proves the necessity for revolutionaries to arm their supporters and lock up their potential enemies. Chile is set up as a model failure.

Guzman and his associates have taken a relentlessly non-aesthetic approach, yet with their artistic sensibilities and superb taste "The Battle of Chile" is an elegy in spite of them. For viewers, it is an accusatory elegy. Aesthetically, this is a major film, and that gives force even to the patterning of its charges. We may have less faith than the moviemakers do in the masterminding powers of the C.I.A., but their dogmatic Marxist view of the role of the United States in Chile seems to coincide with all too many facts. Our own American newspapers have given us corroborative evidence. But what else was going on? What was the United States counterpunching at, and why? And when the narrator tells us that the most powerful TV channel in Chile was funded by the Ford Foundation, what was involved in that? It's not enough for "The Battle of Chile" to run for a couple of weekends at the Film Forum in New York City. It needs to be seen on public television worldwide, with those government officials who formed the American policy toward Allende explaining what interests they believed they were furthering. We're owed more discussion of what the United States was up to - even if we can get it only through the public service sponsorship of transnational corporations.

[This is a slightly edited version of a review by Pauline Kael that was originally published in The New Yorker on 23 January 1978. It also appears in the press kit for the 1998 Icarus Films Special Edition DVD of the film. An interview with Patricio Guzman is in The Documentary Makers by David A. Goldsmith and an English subtitled Conversation with Allende is available on Google Video.]

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