Shooting Revolutions with Chile's Patricio Guzman
by Andrea Meyer
When Salvador Allende’s democratically elected Marxist government was
overthrown in a bloody right-wing coup in 1973, Chilean director
Patricio Guzman was right there filming the massacre. The result was his
seminal two-part documentary “The Battle of Chile.” Twenty years later,
in his latest film “Chile: Obstinate Memory,” Guzman revisits the site
of the coup to explore what people remember about that time and what
they have chosen to forget, in a poetic exploration of the nature of
memory itself. He speaks to people who participated in the events and a
younger generation who know only the official, revised version of their
When Guzman shows “The Battle of Chile” to students, many are
devastated, some crying so hard they can’t speak, when learning for the
first time of the carnage their countrymen inflicted on Allende and his
supporters. Others hold tight to their belief that the right wing did
what was necessary to bring down an ineffective government.
In honor of the 25th anniversary of the coup, New York’s Film Forum is
re-releasing Part II of “The Battle of Chile” along with “Chile:
indieWIRE: “The Battle of Chile” is remarkable because you were
recording history as it happened. We witness first-hand the events
leading to the death of a regime, and it’s very powerful. I’ve never
seen anything like it on film before.
Patricio Guzman: What happened in Chile was very simple. A social
process took place. The state apparatus remained intact. The
communications systems and parliament were running normally, so you
could film wherever you wanted. Your filming strategy changes if there’s
a civil war or a government break-down, but that didn’t happen in this
case. It was the only time in history when the events happened
step-by-step in that fashion, so it was possible to document it like we
iW: The film begins long before the actual coup. Was there a particular
event that prompted you to make the film?
Guzman: No. I made the film because I was passionate about what was
going on. It was like opening your window and seeing a whole social
movement reveal itself right before your eyes. We were contemplating
history right in front of us-Allende talking, fights on one side,
struggles on the other, the police . . . It was a huge spectacle.
iW: Could you tell which direction the political events were going to
take as you were making the film? How did you decide what to shoot?
Guzman: We had various working methods. On the walls were technical
scripts based on possible places where significant events might occur.
It was very organized: on one wall we had three columns containing
possible activity in the political, economic, and ideological arenas. On
the wall on the other side of the studio, we had the same three columns,
with corresponding shot lists. Shooting was based on what was going on
in those three columns. There were basically three places where events
would take place: the parliament was the political sphere, the
university was the ideological sphere, and the factory was the economic.
Every day we would begin at 9:30. Saturday and Sunday. Everyday. Like
firemen. We would already know that in such-and-such factory there was
possibly going to be a strike, or a debate in parliament about a
critical law. We had friends in the factories and in Parliament, and
we’d call them every day. Then by ten in the morning we could make our
shooting schedule. It wasn’t too difficult. For equipment and crew,
there were just two lights, the film stock, an AD, a sound recordist, a
cameraman, and one producer. We only had one camera, one car, and only
42,000 feet of film. We used almost everything we shot. We never got
more than one take.
iW: Were you ever afraid while making the film?
Guzman: Not so much. Sometimes a little. The closer it got to the coup,
the more and more threatened I began to feel. For example, when we were
driving, we didn’t speak. We were so nervous, we couldn’t talk, because
we knew we were going towards danger.
iW: Compare the experience of making your two films.
Guzman: The first one is cinema verite. It was an unrepeatable social
experience. The second one is a more personal film about understanding
the process of remembering. Certain sequences were thought out. It’s a
totally different kind of filmmaking. It’s more intimate than cinema
iW: Do you believe there is one reality or many versions of reality?
Guzman: Many many. They are oblique and all mixed together.
Documentaries are never objective. One is a witness to reality, but he
participates in that reality, and the documentarian is very passionate
about that reality. You always present your point of view. A documentary
is not a window to reality. It’s a version, a representation, of
reality. The only camera that really captures reality is the one that
watches you in the bank. They used to demand objectivity of us. We had
to give equal time to the left, the right, and the center. Now it’s
assumed that the documentarian is an artist who is representing his
version of reality.
iW: According to your friend Ernesto in “Chile: Obstinate Memory,” you
were all a “ship of madmen and dreamers.” Do you agree with him?
Guzman: Yes. I’m very proud of having entered that ship of madmen.
Something like this only happens to a country every hundred years. Like
in Portugal, Nicaragua, Cuba. In Cuba, the first five years of the
revolution were absolutely magical. And then afterwards was a different
story. . . For us, it was romantic. Beautiful. It’s as if everyone in
your country fell in love.