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Depth of Focus

A Chilean filmmaker sheds light on Egyptian unrest

By Jessica A. Sequeira

This weekend I had the wonderful opportunity to watch The Battle of Chile, celebrated Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán’s epic three-part documentary, screened at the Harvard Film Archive. Four and a half hours long, black and white, shot in the streets cinema verité-style over the years 1975-79, it covers the 1972 socialist government of Salvador Allende and its overthrow by military coup d’etat. Bobbing and weaving through the crowds, the camera is drawn to extreme close-ups of the workers and politicians interviewed by Guzmán and his five-person crew.

The film was impressive, but particularly striking to me was the way it covered leftist infighting—despite broad support for Allende—during the months leading up to the coup. Yesterday afternoon, I spoke with Guzmán through a translator, curious about his insights as to what relevance the events of 1972-3 might have for today’s events in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and other countries. One of the challenges in the region is that those agitating have not yet agreed on a coherent positive narrative: Unlike with the 1952 socialist revolution in Egypt, nationalist movements have not tended to coalesce around a charismatic personage like Nasser. Broad sentiment has yet to be channeled into a productive storyline—while the general consensus is in favor of democracy, the region remains in flux.

Guzmán, too, had been following the events closely. On the surface, of course, the situations are very different: “Allende wanted to bring about change. He brought the people great happiness, and had the support of 43 percent of the population. The right was just very strong, and very smart. In contrast, the Arab world is against dictatorship. There has been no democratic government, from Syria to Morocco. It is a revolution of rage.” What the two situations have in common however, Guzmán said, is “popular power.” As for what to do next, “there is no straight answer. No one knows how to make a revolution.”

The Battle of Chile is not subtle about its political commitments. Guzmán supplements the events with a voiceover throughout—a point that irritated Pauline Kael in her generally glowing 1978 New York Times review of a dubbed first two parts. “The film seems to give us only the public actions—and none of the inner workings,” she wrote. “Those are supplied by an English narrator (a woman) who keeps interpreting for us. There may be considerable truth here, but this kind of thing can drive one a little crazy.” In the HFA version, the narration is done by Guzmán himself, in Spanish.

It is difficult to know quite what Kael wanted: How exactly does one show “inner workings” on film? Any choice of attention, too, is an interpretation. In fact, the narration seems to be one of the film’s more brilliant aspects. A documentary film usually consists of impassioned events, with facts or data provided by a dispassionate narrator; Guzmán instead focuses on occurrences as everyday as parliamentary discussions, overlaying them with fervent analysis. The events he covers are dramatic, but his focus—particularly in the third part—is on the process of building. Guzmán didn’t remember Kael’s criticism, but had this to say: “The Battle of Chile is not meant to be objective. My sympathies for the socialism of Allende were always clear. It is impossible to explain everything through images, so I give the analysis. But it is meant to orient the spectator; it is the spectator who sees his past and can decide what he thinks.”

In any case, to remain objective would have been artificial. During the process of filming, Guzmán’s Argentine cameraman is fatally shot. A policeman is filmed pointing his gun at a passerby; the gun points toward the camera; the camera falls, and, suddenly, all we see is sky. End part one.

The personal blow encouraged Guzmán to work even harder at drawing out what he calls the “invisible facts.” He gave an example of what he means: “During Popular Unity, workers barricaded the street. There was radio, TV, film cameras. These were the ‘visible facts.’ But nobody filmed why it was happening. There must have been reasons to protest. To get there, there must have been debates, whether good or bad. There must have been political questions. It’s interesting when you have a plural left—at that time, there were seven parties on the left!—and they come together to agree. It means the agreement was authentic: It had real weight.”

The only way for Egypt and other countries in the Middle East to move forward is for them to construct a coherent account of their own past and future. A charismatic leader is one way to bring various causes together—ultimately, a leader is necessary to unite people and make reform possible. Guzmán thinks that the presence of Allende was “absolutely crucial” to bring together various political factions. “There were discrepancies on the left, and there were would not have been unity without Allende,” he said.

But another means of providing a coherent narrative of the past is through artistic projects, ones that unite polemic and poetry in creative ways to discover the “invisible facts.” As Guzmán writes on his website: “For decades, a part of documentary film was incarcerated in the prison of realism… today it isn’t enough to accumulate facts and data. Those that move within that space will never be able to show us the non-visible reality that Cervantes or Kafka saw. One must go farther: teach what we do not know, show what we cannot see. Our Latin American culture (Indigenous, Black, European, Jewish, Arab) no longer fits in with a demand for one reality only. To take advantage of this richness leads to the amplification of the word ‘documentary.’”

Jessica A. Sequeira’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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