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The Battle of Chile (Patricio Guzmán, 1975). Courtesy of Icarus Films

On September 11, 1973, the Chilean military, with the support of the United States, overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. The filmmaker Patricio Guzmán was 32 years old at the time, and had been filming the events leading up to the coup for a year and a half—in marches, on the backs of trucks, inside the chambers of commerce. When the military finally bombed La Moneda, Chile’s White House, Guzmán was there to film it. The footage he captured from this period formed the core of the extraordinary oeuvre of documentaries Guzmán produced in the following decades, particularly his epic The Battle of Chile (1978-80), which endures to this day as a furious witness to a terrible history.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the coup, Icarus Films and Cinema Tropical are co-presenting a nearly full retrospective of Guzmán’s works across New York City this September. A new restoration of Guzmán’s debut 1972 documentary, The First Year, which chronicles the initial 12 months of Allende’s presidency, will play at Anthology Film Archives, and a crisp, 2K restoration of The Battle of Chile will screen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a week. Finally, IFC Center will present a number of Guzmán’s more recent works, including My Imaginary Country, about the mass popular uprising in Chile in 2019.

In The Battle of Chile, Guzmán paints an all-encompassing portrait of a people-powered government under siege from military and economic warfare. The sweeping, tripartite film moves from public marches to copper mines, government proceedings to union meetings, gatherings of the upper class to the slums. We see the struggle for power—and the horrors that ensue—unfold in vérité time. In a particularly intense moment at the end of the first part, “The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie,” the frame freezes on the visage of a soldier brutalizing a protester. “This is the true face of the Chilean military,” announces Guzmán in voiceover. The soldier aims his gun straight at the lens; the camera falls, and the image spins towards the sky. It was the last shot that Guzmán’s collaborator, Argentine cameraman Leonardo Henrichsen, would ever take. The making of this film was a matter of life and death.

When General Augusto Pinochet seized control of the country in 1973 and established a military dictatorship, Guzmán was captured and held prisoner in Chile’s national stadium. Eventually released and forced into exile, he finished editing the film in Cuba, and screened the first part at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival. Jorge Müller Silva, the main cameraman on the film, was captured, tortured, and never found again.

Since the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1990, Guzmán has been making lyrical, elegiac documentaries about Chile’s past and present. Last week, I spoke with the filmmaker, now 80 years old and based in Paris, about the thrilling and disturbing magnum opus that is The Battle of Chile, his memories of the coup, his magical meeting with Chris Marker, and his commitment to hope in the face of defeat.

One of the things I didn’t know about the 1973 coup, even as a Chilean, but learned from watching The Battle of Chile, was how the the right waged economic war against Allende—how the opposition, the upper class of Chile, got together with the United States to strangle Allende’s economy and bring about panic.

Well, it began when the right started to hide merchandise and food in a popular and institutional way. The popular way was that any housewife or group of neighbors from the upper-class neighborhoods would hoard food and groceries. This immediately caused a shock in the distribution of goods. You went to buy groceries and there was nothing left. The news outlets blamed it on the government, saying it was socialism that was behind it.

There’s a humorous moment near the beginning of the first part of the film when a woman is interviewed on the street, eating ice cream. You ask her how she feels about the food shortage, and she says something like, “Well, I don’t think there is a food shortage, because I haven’t lost an ounce of weight!”

Yes, there was this sense of loyalty among the people. Even though things were hard at times, they were exciting, emotional. The right wing was constantly making you think that everything was about attack and attack until we got to total chaos. They made speeches on various ultra-right-wing radio stations. And, well, Allende constantly presented bills that were systematically rejected in both chambers of government. But still, there were certain loopholes, certain corridors, that the government took advantage of to squeeze in all kinds of things, so that the distribution of food, objects, products was not completely paralyzed.

The sense of solidarity among the people, as depicted in the film, is quite touching.      

We understood what it meant to participate, because under the other governments it was: you vote and you move on. But to participate in this case meant working—and that was quite a lot. Sometimes it was hard to load a train with sacks of flour, for example, to distribute among the people. We were doing that while also making the film. It was physically and mentally taxing, to defend the government you elected with your body.

It’s interesting that the strikes we see in the film are led by the upper classes, the businessmen, the folks who’re usually opposed to strikes. There’s a contradiction there, right?

Well, the whole country began to experience a right-wing war against Allende and his government. Roads were blocked. Buses stopped running. And even the port of Valparaíso was partly blocked up. This class did not want to do what the government was telling them to do, which was basically to relinquish some of their power, some of their wealth. And since Chile was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time, it was complicated. Foreign debt was increasing, and it looked huge. Allende could not say, well, since there are no trucks, we are going to buy 50 million trucks. It was impossible. It was a strike that could not be easily neutralized, and they wanted to create conditions that would encourage a coup.

Can you tell me how you met Chris Marker and how he helped with The Battle of Chile

Chris arrived in Chile in 1971, soon after Allende had been elected. Chile was being visited by all sorts of Europeans at that time, who were coming to see how it was possible to make a democratically elected socialist government, and turn around the capitalist system. They came from Poland, Germany, France, Spain, and among them was Chris Marker. He thought it was a good subject to make a film about. He came to my house because he knew I had made a film about Chile [The First Year] and was making another one. He knocked on the door and said, “Hi, I’m Chris Marker.” I froze. I already knew him. There was a film of Chris that all of us in Chile had seen.

Which one?

La Jetée. So I told him that I knew him, and that I admired his work very much. I said to him, take a seat, please, and he sat down like any other visitor, and we had a cup of tea. It was a surreal situation because we didn’t know each other. But he was a genius of documentary filmmaking. I was wide-eyed. Then he suddenly said to me, “I’ve come to buy your film. Yesterday I saw it, and I decided to buy it from you to show it in Paris.” I must have been just under 30 years old, and I was ecstatic. I agreed to send it to him by mail, and he left for France.

That was The First Year?

Yes. We had just started the process of making The Battle of Chile, because things were getting tense in Chile—there were feelings of pre-civil war. But we didn’t have any film. The only importer of Kodak film in Chile had closed and we didn’t have any left. So we wrote to Chris and asked for help. The answer was a one-line telegram. It just said: “I will do what I can. Chris.”

I then began to form the team. There were about four of us: Jorge Müller, who would later be assassinated shortly after the shooting of the film; Bernardo Menz, the sound engineer, only 18 years old at the time; José “Pepe” Bartolome, a Spaniard who was passing through Santiago who helped with production; and me. Then, a month later, a parcel arrived at the Santiago Airport directly from Kodak. In the package was over 40,000 feet of black-and-white film stock, approximately 14 hours, and sound equipment. You could never have imagined how happy we were. Thanks to Chris, we were able to shoot the film.

I’m curious about the critical reception of The Battle of Chile here in the United States. One of your first fans was the film critic Pauline Kael. Did anybody in the U.S. criticize you or the film for exposing the involvement of Henry Kissinger and the CIA in the coup?

In the United States, this film had a splendid run. Next to me, right now, I have a big poster, and it says “Spectacular,” in English. And below that it says The New Yorker. And there’s another one that says “Magnificent,” and below that it says The Village Voice. The film primarily circulated in New York and San Francisco. It’s still as successful today as it was 50 years ago. That’s unusual for a documentary film. It is very modern in style; it doesn’t look like a film from 50 years ago. The style, the agility of the film, the way of narrating the facts with a very brief voiceover.

When the first part of the movie was released in the United States, did you visit New York and San Francisco?  

No, I sent my production manager, Federico Elton. I stayed in Cuba, finishing the other two parts. I became less involved in distribution, but I did exhibit the film in France and Spain. It was an amazing time for the team, because in Chile there was this massacre with the coup, and the country was being transformed into something else, but we had the magnificent job of documenting precisely how that disaster happened and of making it known.

It’s impressive how the film has these moments of great suspense—it feels like a thriller, or an action movie at times. Was it always your intention to imbue The Battle of Chile with those elements?  

Well, whenever you make a movie, you rely on an essential element. In the case of The Battle of Chile, it was easy because it was pure action. Everything that happens in the film is an action. Everything we filmed was in movement. A minister was moving, a factory was moving, the police were moving around, hundreds of thousands of people were mobilizing and moving around. The best thing for the viewer is to see the action unfold as it happens, as if they were there.

I wanted to ask you about the current situation in Chile. The recent plebiscite, in which the new constitution was rejected by voters, was a huge defeat for the left in Chile. After 50 years, the country still operates under Pinochet’s constitution, and the mass protests of the last three or four years came to a halt with that defeat. How do you feel about the future of Chile? Can something like Allende’s revolution come about again?

I believe that there will be another revolution, but it will take a long time. There are a lot of young people in Chile with good hearts. They are prepared and they are the most enthusiastic. But they are young. The country is full of businessmen and old tigers. It’s hard with that system in place, when those people control a large part of the country. But ultimately, I have hope. I always have hope.

Samuel Brodsky is a filmmaker, producer, and writer living in New York City.