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The Afterlife of a Coup

Fifty years of Chilean life in the films of Patricio Guzmán

Memory can be stubborn, insistent, forceful—or as ephemeral as a cloud. Take this scene: an older woman, primly dressed in wool overcoat with blouse buttoned all the way to the top, sees a young woman paused on her TV screen in black and white. The young woman marches through the streets of Santiago in support of Chilean president Salvador Allende, her gaze resolute. Old friends of hers, watching the footage, had indicated that the woman depicted is Carmen Vivanco. The older woman watching is certainly Carmen Vivanco. Is that her on the screen, though?

“I’m not sure,” she says. “Maybe when I was younger. It’s from years ago.”

“Twenty-three years,” notes a voice from offscreen.

“Maybe,” she again demurs, “but I can’t be sure.”

The exchange occurs early in Patricio Guzmán’s 1997 film Chile: Obstinate Memory, a meditation on the vexed relationship between present and past. Memory, for its own sake and in its capacity to galvanize or obstruct, is the director’s great theme. Much of his oeuvre offers an elegy for a Chile that seemed briefly to be blazing into existence in the early 1970s and then came violently apart. In those promising and troubled years, socialist president Salvador Allende attempted to transform Chilean society fundamentally, to build a workers’ utopia by redistributing land and expropriating industry via existing democratic channels. Instead, the contradictions of his peaceful road to socialism proved too sharp. A counter-revolution culminated in his violent overthrow by the Chilean military, who reversed the transformations and instituted a reign of terror against their own population.

The coup was on September 11, 1973—the country recently marked the passage of fifty years since that day. Today, Chile lives in the afterlife of the counterrevolution, governed even after its return to democracy by the legal codes and institutional matrix that General Augusto Pinochet’s military regime put in place. The country remains haunted by the brutality of those years, scarred by the junta’s elisions and suppressions. Allende’s promise and the subsequent photonegative of this promise are captured vividly in the work of the Guzmán. His corpus offers a lifetime of reflection on Chile as it might have been, grasping for and eventually finding the will to begin dreaming again.

Guzmán’s Obstinate Memory revisits his three-part masterwork chronicling Allende’s administration and its downfall, The Battle of Chile. Shot in cinema verité style, the films examine the furious reaction of the Chilean bourgeoisie and military to Allende’s election. (Meanwhile, at the direction of President Richard Nixon, with coordination by national security adviser Henry Kissinger, the CIA launched a destabilization plan that helped pave the way to the coup.) At the outset of part one, The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie (1975), the elections of 1972 seem to hold the possibility of achieving congressional quorums for the Christian Democrats and nationalists that would enable Allende’s impeachment. The documentarians conduct man-on-the-street interviews with marchers, drivers, and idlers; the streets pulse. The style is fleshy: interviewers slap the microphone as they approach their interlocutors; the camerawork scans people’s bodies from odd and intimate angles, moving close enough to see inside mouths and up noses.

Supporters of the liberal and right-wing opposition counterpose “democracy” and freedom with the corruption and degradation of socialist rule. (The consistent anti-left position of the liberals is bracing.) If the comparison evokes Cold War boilerplate, their sense of loss is nonetheless material: with the government expropriating factories to hand over to workers and transferring land from large landowners to campesinos, the balance of class power has shifted. The elation of the workers and the Chilean poor is more palpable still. A woman compares Allende’s administration to his Christian Democrat predecessor: “When he was in government, I lived in a shack that was falling down. It was damp all the time, and my four children had bronchopneumonia. I asked everywhere for help and nobody listened to me. But now, wherever I go, I’m seen to, and thanks to Allende, I’ve got a lovely house. I don’t have many comforts, but we don’t go hungry.”

As it turned out, Allende’s Popular Unity party expanded its support in those 1972 elections; reaction overflowed its parliamentary bounds. Opposition parties blocked all new legislation from Allende and had his ministers removed from their positions on specious corruption charges; our film crew is on the congressional floor, and these scenes unfold like a courtroom drama. The streets thrum with demonstrations and counterdemonstrations. While Allende had the support of the working class, certain subsectors align with his opposition and their North American patrons in efforts to disrupt the social transformations underway. In late 1972, with the backing of the CIA, Chilean truckers went on strike for nearly a month, grinding economic activity to a halt. In April of 1973, workers at the El Teniente copper mine, which had been nationalized two years earlier and accounted for a fifth of the country’s economic output, struck for higher wages. Guzmán, who provides patient and didactic commentary throughout his films, reads these strikers as a labor aristocracy, able to press their privileged position in the Chilean economy for a larger personal slice of the pie.

Chile recently marked the passage of fifty years since the coup of September 11, 1973.

The whipsawing of Chilean political life in this time follows an escalating rhythm: frustrated in their efforts to thwart Allende via legitimate channels, his opposition turns increasingly violent. Here again, the footage is shockingly intimate. An attempted June 1973 coup at La Moneda, the presidential building, by a small military detachment fails to overthrow the government. Leonardo Henrichsen, an Argentine cameraman filming the unfolding operation, lingers too long and is shot dead; his camera sinks and the footage fades, and thus ends the first installment of the Battle. The second follows as the action rises further, closing with the successful coup of September 11, with the armed forces now more fully in support of the takeover. His enemies closing in, Allende gives a final speech by radio, eloquent despite the circumstances. “History is ours,” he says, “and the people make it. You all know that much sooner than later, the great boulevards will open through which free men will pass to construct a better society.” These words continue to pass from the lips of Chileans hopefully invoking that world to come.

The third installment of The Battle of Chile, The Power of the People (1979), also examines the Allende years. Departing from the earlier emphasis on the political economy of reaction, the film turns to questions of left strategy. In his first eighteen months in office, Allende nationalized the copper, iron, coal, nitrate, and cement industries, and carried out much of his program of social transformation. Workers agitate for both autonomous control over and organized defense of their new gains. “Belts” of workers form to locally coordinate production, distribution, and defense; peasants coordinate with industrial workers to occupy disused large estates; and “people’s stores” circumvent the disengagement of the petit bourgeois and middle classes to distribute food and supplies, ultimately feeding three hundred thousand families—more than half of Santiago’s population—in 1973. The autonomous organization of the workers, however, sits uncomfortably with many within organized left parties. Amid a transition from capitalist production to a worker-led socialist society, what balance is to be struck between worker autonomy and centralized authority? The debates over this question unfold, with impressive erudition and clarity, among the workers, peasants, and partisans themselves, with urgent material stakes. In the end, unarmed, the workers are steamrolled along with Allende by the vengeful forces of reaction.

That La Batalla de Chile was even made is something of a triumph. After the coup, Guzmán was imprisoned in Chile’s National Stadium, where he was held for two weeks. To avoid having the footage confiscated, his uncle Ignacio hid the reels for the documentary in his home, passing them surreptitiously to Swedish diplomats; they smuggled the reels to Stockholm, where Guzmán collected them two months later. His uncle, by then the only surviving member of his family, recounts the story to Guzmán in Chile: Obstinate Memory. Guzmán had been living in Paris in the years since his flight; his Battle had become internationally acclaimed, showing in more than three dozen countries. But, despite Pinochet leaving office in 1990, the film by 1997 still had never been shown in Chile.

Obstinate Memory’s pacing is more meandering than its predecessors: Guzmán revisits the presidential palace with one of Allende’s surviving guards from the day of the coup, catches up with a professor who stuck around, and shows aged Allende devotees their younger selves on the march. He recalls the disappearance of Jorge Müller Silva, cinematographer for The Battle of Chile to whom that film is dedicated, upon his detention in the notorious Villa Grimaldi concentration camp. The most striking scenes occur when Guzmán screens the film for groups of college students too young to remember the coup with clarity. A few suggest the military takeover, while regrettable in its violence, was necessary to restore stability and beat back communism. But the students mostly appear horrified at the brutality. Emerging from beneath the propaganda of the Pinochet regime, they recollect the formative events hovering just beyond their collective conscience. Many weep. But the students seem also to recover something of the spirit of those times. “I’m proud of all these people who fought for an ideal,” offers one woman. “I think it’s legitimate to dream, to fight for your own dreams.”

With decades past since the world seemed to open before him, Guzmán’s own dreams have evolved: from the building of a new society to a cogent memory of its demise. He has moved from creating the stuff of memory to capturing it to preserving it—the plight of the aging radical. The sharpness of Guzmán’s early political-economic analysis implies, though, the question of contingency: Might events have unfolded differently? Was there some set of tactics by which the emboldened workers and socialists in power could have navigated the domestic and foreign spasms of reaction?

Allende reads his Marx and his Lenin, learns from local anarchists in Valparaiso, ministers to the poor and sick, and develops a critique of the social order.

In 2004’s Salvador Allende he gives his answer. The movie offers an ode to the president, a history from his youth in Valparaiso through his rise to the heights of political power. Allende reads his Marx and his Lenin, learns from local anarchists in Valparaiso, ministers to the poor and sick, and develops a critique of the social order; by all accounts he remains throughout a gentleman, charming, gregarious, and tireless. “Salvador Allende marked my life,” Guzmán says in the introduction. “I wouldn’t be what I am if he had not incarnated the utopia of a just and free world.” Many of his compatriots feel likewise. As in Obstinate Memory, Guzmán picks up conversations with those pictured in his trilogy decades later: his interviewees still disagree, for instance, about whether Allende might have oriented himself more astutely toward the military and preempted their actions against him. Guzmán himself is more resigned. “What could we have done to channel the people’s energy and advance?” he asks in voiceover. “Nothing. Forces played freely, each to its own. Allende’s message was heard. The people listened, but organized force wasn’t the result. Leftist parties didn’t budge. They didn’t listen to their militants. Allende’s solitude could be felt.” And then he was gone.

For those of us who find inspiration in Allende’s vision of socialism as the fruition of real democracy, the conclusion is dispiriting. But this full accounting of Guzmán’s north star seemingly allows catharsis, such that he thereafter lets his gaze wander more widely. After Allende and 2001’s The Pinochet Case—following the dictator’s detention, house arrest, and aborted trial in the UK—his work takes an ecological turn. Beginning with Nostalgia for the Light in 2010, the director looks not only at the social history of Chile but its stunning natural features as well. Guzmán here indulges a longstanding interest by interviewing astronomers working in Chile’s northern Atacama Desert, a setting dry enough to approximate the conditions of Mars, where the thin air allows for a clearer view of the night sky than anywhere else in the world. The Atacama is itself an archive—its dead become mummified in the aridity, giving the land the ability to reveal stories to those willing to brave it. Analogous to the astronomers encountering the past through their telescopes are groups of Atacama women still looking nearly four decades later for their disappeared family members. These women, who have uncovered jawbones, fragments, whole bodies under the loose rocks, manifest the hunger for a memory of what transpired during Chile’s years of terror.

Two themes emerge in Nostalgia that course through this period of Guzmán’s work. The first is the recurring inscription of histories of violence into the same nodes, entangling various forms of oppression across epochs. The largest of Pinochet’s concentration camps, Chacabuco, sits in preserved ruins buffeted by the Atacama’s winds. It was readymade as a sequestration site thanks to its earlier use as a camp for miners, who were packed together in this alien environment in conditions resembling slavery. The longer historical timeframe offered by a consideration of the geological also allows—here is the second theme—a rediscovered sense of possibility, emerging from the strangeness of the natural world’s entwinement with the social. The viewer meets Valentina, an astronomer, whose parents were disappeared by the junta. The grandparents who raised her were themselves detained and forced to turn her parents over to the police. Despite the horrible knot of that history, Valentina seems to have found something like peace: “I tell myself we are all part of a current, of an energy, a recyclable matter. Like the stars which must die, so that other stars can be born, other planets, a new life. In this context, what happened to my parents and their absence takes on another dimension . . . and frees me a little from this great suffering.” The coup may have been a supernova, but the cosmos spins on.

The Pearl Button (2015) and Cordillera of Dreams (2019) pick up on these themes with more aplomb. In Button, Guzmán shifts his gaze from the desert to Chile’s snaking coastline—particularly to the watery south, land of majestic fjords and of Indigenous peoples who have lived for millennia with the sea and travel by canoe. Settlers arrived in 1883—“the gold hunters, the military, the police, the cattle farmers, and the Catholic missionaries”—and Indigenous communities in Patagonia found their modes of life interrupted. Marked as nuisances, many sought refuge on Dawson Island, where they were welcomed by missionaries who clothed them in infected garb, barred their traditional practices, and oversaw their deaths in droves. They live on nonetheless. As with Chacabuco, Dawson Island later reprised its role under Pinochet, acting as a concentration camp for political prisoners. In Cordillera, Guzmán considers the country’s majestic Andean spine, home to mystery as surely as to buried pasts. Stone from those mountains built the city, and now, in smaller chunks, offer ammunition for protesters to hurl at police. Guzmán spends time with videographer Pablo Salas, who stayed in Santiago throughout the Pinochet years filming street protests and demonstrations. He plays a foil to Guzmán, who spent his adult life dreaming of and chronicling Chile from afar. Salas has assembled an enormous archive, an invaluable store of memory. But he doesn’t know what to do with all those recollections, besides to cart them around with him in hopes they’ll one day find a home. He notes a continuity between the dark Pinochet years and the post-dictatorship governments. “They say there were mistakes, that they took things too far,” he tells Guzmán, “but they are happy with the economic system. . . . These people use and abuse what Pinochet left behind.” Guzmán, nostalgic as ever, closes with a wish on a meteorite, a shooting star in miniature, that has landed in the cordillera. “My wish is that Chile recovers its childhood and joy.” Many others, it would turn out, held the same hope.

You can never go home again; the specific utopia that Allende pointed toward died with the man himself, even if its memory looms inescapably. In 2019, though, the year of Cordillera’s release, massive street protests broke out against social inequalities in Chile. In October, a thirty-peso hike in Santiago subway fares touched off a firestorm, and students began jumping turnstiles en masse. The actions spread across the country, and people flocked to the streets to protest the patriarchy, debt, the commercialization of life, and for Indigenous rights. A week later, 1.2 million people turned out for an action in central Santiago. A new vision of utopia appeared to be taking shape.

In last year’s My Imaginary Country, he opens with footage of Allende supporters chanting in the streets. Historical echoes resound.

These actions brought Guzmán back to Chile. In last year’s My Imaginary Country, true to form, he opens with footage of Allende supporters chanting in the streets. Historical echoes resound. But differences from Guzmán’s youth quickly become apparent too: now, protesters were acting “without leaders, without ideology.” Guzmán sits down to interview a fierce young woman in balaclava who tells him that “I have nothing to do with politics. I’m not a member of any party. And I’m not the only one. There are many of us who think this way.” Reflecting the intervening experience with the authoritarian and neoliberal governments, protesters speak now not about workers and socialism but about the state as itself a force to battle. The protests are women-led and strongly feminist; in comparison to footage from prior documentaries, indigenous Mapuche flags abound. Conservative president Sebastián Piñera declares a state of emergency and calls the military into the streets, evoking Pinochet’s shock troops. Eventually, to find a way out of the unrest, the government asks Chileans to vote on rewriting the constitution: they vote overwhelmingly to do so, electing a strikingly progressive group including many non-professional politicians to steward the process.

Guzmán approaches the movement with both an avuncular pride—could this finally be the fulfillment of his dream deferred?—and an open curiosity about the novel forms of social action. The feeling of history being made bursts from the screen. Gabriel Boric, an eloquent young democratic socialist, is elected president. Many interview subjects claim that “there is no going back,” and changes underway are here to stay. The protests, Guzmán believes, “altered the soul of Chile.” Destiny seems around the corner; only a few characters broach the possibility of failure.

They ought to have worried more: the new constitution was rejected in September of 2022. Boric pushed for another crack at writing the new constitution; this time, Chileans elected a resurgent far right to oversee the process. Gone are rights of nature, gender parity in public bodies, Indigenous autonomy, and sundry other progressive goals. Guzmán’s dream of a Chile with its youth and joy rediscovered remains elusive. The windows through which a new world might emerge open but as glimmers, and close as quickly as a shooting star winks out. Just as a wizened Guzmán dared again to dream, another window slammed shut.

But Allende’s last words still ring, if largely as wishful incantation: history is ours, and the people make it. The fiftieth anniversary of the coup offered an opportunity to put memory into practice. Boric’s administration announced that, for the first time, the government would search for the more than one thousand disappeared people still unaccounted for. At the behest of Boric and progressive U.S. Congress members, the CIA has recently declassified more documents about United States involvement in the coup.

As Guzmán’s work insistently reminds us, memory is a process, and must be enacted to reproduce itself through time. And the process is material: contained in the reels hidden by a brave uncle and passed to Swedish diplomats, in the fragmentary maps painted by diasporic Chilean artists, in the purposeful screenings for students too young to know relevant histories firsthand. Most important, then, on this vexed anniversary, were the days of public commemoration, the concerts and talks and street demonstrations conjuring Allende. His socialist revolution of red wine and empanadas was crushed long ago. But unconquered is the memory, for millions, of what it felt like to dream collectively, and to attempt to make the world anew.