Chile’s Documentarian of Dashed Dreams

Fifty years after a coup ended Chile’s socialist experiment, the films of Patricio Guzmán—now on view in a New York retrospective—offer a guide to the era and its long shadow.

Mitchell Abidor
September 7, 2023

Still from Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light (2010).

Courtesy of Cinema Tropical.

In history, one tragedy can hide another. September 11th now signifies the attacks that were carried out on that date in 2001. But decades before, there was another horrific September 11th; its 50th anniversary falls next week. On that day in 1973, the Chilean military staged a coup d’état and overthrew the country’s democratically elected president, the socialist Salvador Allende, who committed suicide rather than surrender his post and his honor. The coup put an end to a unique experiment: Allende led the left-wing Popular Unity coalition—which included the Socialist and Communist Parties, and which was dedicated to putting Chile on the road to socialism through democratic and constitutional means. Nascent socialism was promptly replaced by the right-wing military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, whose nearly 20-year reign was characterized by the establishment of a singularly brutal form of neoliberalism—in which the banning of unions and opposition parties allowed capital to rule unimpeded—and the imprisonment and murder of thousands of the regime’s opponents.

At the time, the electoral strategy that Allende stood for was radical on the Latin American left. Since the victory of Fidel Castro’s guerrillas in Cuba in 1959, armed resistance was the favored path to liberation across the continent. While Allende had great admiration for the guerrilla groups, including the Chilean Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), he believed that only a government that took power democratically could succeed in building a socialist state. (His views were informed both by his profound confidence in the republican ideal and by the crushing of militant movements in Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, and Uruguay.) Though he differed from these revolutionaries strategically, it was clear that he too intended to institute real socialism, not merely reformist social democracy. As Che Guevara wrote in the autographed copy of his book Guerrilla Warfare that he gave the future Chilean leader: “To Salvador Allende, who is trying to obtain the same results by other means.”

Allende had been elected with a plurality—not a majority—in 1970, after three previous, unsuccessful bids for the presidency. Believing he had been given a mandate to carry out the Popular Unity program, he immediately set to work. In a book-length interview he gave to the French journalist and philosopher Régis Debray later that year, he laid out his early initiatives: “the constitutional reform for nationalizing copper . . . the creation of the national peasant council, the expropriation of an important textile company in Concepción, the nationalization of steel, the nationalization of coal, the bill to nationalize the banks.” From the day of Allende’s election, the right actively fought his projects, and—with the financial assistance and encouragement of the US, spearheaded by Henry Kissinger—they soon mobilized to make it impossible for him to govern, much less carry out massive change. The united right-wing parties, which had a majority in the legislature, systematically rejected the president’s proposals.

The campaign against Allende was not only fought in the legislature. The right fomented disorder and discontent in key industries, disrupting daily life and imperiling the Chilean economy. Workers whose cause Allende had supported turned on him; bus drivers, truck drivers, and copper miners went on strike. Women from wealthy neighborhoods marched in the streets banging pots and pans, claiming there was no food to eat. Restiveness grew in the military, which attempted a coup in June 1973. Right-wing terror spread, and in July Arturo Araya Peeters, Allende’s naval aide, was assassinated by a paramilitary group. The MIR, which had maintained that armed struggle would ultimately be necessary, stepped up its calls for Allende to arm the workers and prepare for another coup attempt. But the president, still firmly believing in Chile’s democracy, refused to do so. Rather than rein in the military, he continued to bring generals he thought trustworthy into his government; he appointed Pinochet, who would lead the coup, as the army’s commander-in-chief, and requested that he draw up a plan to respond should the military rebel.

In the face of a rising crisis, Allende decided he would hold a referendum on the course to be followed, which he planned to announce on September 11th. Instead, in the early morning hours, a military uprising began in the southern city of Valparaíso and soon spread across the country. Tanks fired on the Moneda, the presidential palace, where Allende and his bodyguards remained at their posts. He made several radio speeches, condemning the coup and explaining his refusal to accept the insurrectionists’ ultimatum that he surrender and leave the country. “Workers of my country,” he said hours before his suicide, “I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again and free men will walk through them to construct a better society. Long live Chile!”


There is no better guide to this period and its long shadow than the films of Patricio Guzmán, a selection of which will be shown around New York—at Anthology Film Archives, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and IFC Center—in a series called “Dreaming of Utopia: 50 Years of Revolutionary Hope and Memory,” running from September 7th through September 15th. Guzmán, an active supporter of Popular Unity whose activities as a filmmaker were well known to the military, lived through the coup himself. He was detained for 15 days in the National Stadium, which was converted into a prison that held thousands of Allende supporters, many of whom were tortured or murdered; upon his release, Guzmán went into exile. His homeland—and the dashed dreams of Allende’s government—have dominated his films ever since. Through his work, we can witness Chile’s brief brush with socialism, and glimpse the new hopes of the present.

Guzmán’s first feature-length films—The First Year (1972) and the three-part The Battle of Chile (1975, 1976, 1979)—trace the course of Allende’s administration. The First Year chronicles its great accomplishments: the wave of industry nationalizations, the government-supported occupation of large landholdings by the peasants who worked them, the almost immediate re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba. During Fidel Castro’s first visit, Guzmán speaks to workers in factories and mines, who express their support for the government’s actions. The film’s tone is entirely optimistic up until its final minutes, when Guzmán turns to the wealthiest Chileans, whose campaign against Allende is heating up. We hear the voices of the rich complaining that the supermarkets are empty and no food is available, while Guzmán shows us stores overflowing with goods.

The first part of The Battle of Chile, subtitled “The Revolt of the Bourgeoisie,” picks up in the third year of Allende’s presidency. It shows us the enthusiastic crowds attending rallies prior to the legislative elections of March 1973, with Indigenous Mapuche women proudly saying they plan to vote for Volodia Teitelbaum, the Communist candidate. The people in the crowd are confident of victory. But so, too, are the supporters of the right whom Guzmán interviews, who expect an electoral tidal wave to wipe out the socialist experiment. Though Popular Unity didn’t win outright, it achieved a higher percentage of votes than it had in the presidential election of 1970—and so, the voiceover tells us, the right then set its sights on a coup.

“The Revolt of the Bourgeoisie” ends with the same scene that opens the second film in the triptych, “The Coup d’Etat,” which comprises perhaps the most chilling few seconds in cinematic history: A journalist, filming the coup attempt in June of 1973, trains his lens on a soldier aiming at him. The camera wavers, and then the image goes blurry; he has captured his own death. “The Coup d’Etat” goes on to document the dizzying period leading up to the military’s seizure of power—the final chaotic months of right-wing terror, of conservative political and economic obstructionism, and of continued popular support for Allende, with tens if not hundreds of thousands of people marching through the streets of Santiago. The viewer’s knowledge of the administration’s end does nothing to diminish its horror on screen. (The third part, “Popular Power,” set before the first two installments, consists largely of meetings in which workers attempt to organize the struggle against the right. It lacks the great fire of its predecessors, offering a meaningful but muted and overly optimistic portrait of resistance.)

Decades later, Guzmán returned to the era covered by The Battle of Chile—even repurposing much of his old footage—in Salvador Allende (2004). While the bulk of the film is concerned with its subject’s presidency, it spans his entire life. Guzmán shows how Allende’s failed presidential campaigns of 1952, 1958, and 1964 allowed him to form ties with working people across the country, establishing the basis for his eventual victory. The film benefits from its historical distance from Allende’s administration and the coup, posing critical questions not voiced in the earlier films: Why did Allende continue to trust the military, or refuse to arm the people even when it became clear a coup was imminent? Despite these criticisms, the film—perhaps the most powerful and moving of all the works included in the retrospective—ultimately portrays Allende as a man of great honor.

While the coup and its aftermath continue to haunt Guzmán and his work, for a decade he took to expressing his sorrow and bitterness, as well as his longing for the land, by meditating on Chile’s ecological wonders, shadowed by the darkness of history. The result was a poetic trio of films. Nostalgia for the Light (2010) is set in the Atacama Desert, which has the clearest skies in the world—and which also contains the bones of untold anonymous dead “disappeared” by the dictatorship, whose remains, removed from mass graves by the army and scattered, are still being sought by relatives. In The Pearl Button (2015), Guzmán ponders the Pacific Ocean and the violence perpetrated around and in its waters, exploring how the military used the sea as a secret burial ground for murdered political prisoners—and how, more than a century earlier, white settlers wiped out the Indigenous tribes who lived on the coast. Cordillera of Dreams (2019) considers the place of the Andes in the Chilean imagination, drawing a parallel between the tendency of Santiago residents to ignore the mountain range they can see in the distance and the way most Chileans fail to remember the beauty and strength of the three years of Popular Unity rule. But as Guzmán shows, the spirit of that time has not completely faded away: The film concludes with the first stirrings of the rebellion of the young, which burst into full bloom in 2019.

This student-led protest movement, which was sparked by a raise in the fares on public transport and soon grew to challenge all the inequities in Chilean society, ultimately led to the 2022 election of Gabriel Boric, Chile’s first leftist president since Allende. The evolution of this movement is the subject of Guzmán’s most recent film, My Imaginary Country (2022), in which he speaks with some of those who took to the streets—those who built barricades, who threw stones at the police, who gathered in the hundreds of thousands to support Boric. Comparing these interviewees to those in The Battle of Chile reveals the changing face of those fighting to remake the country. Gone are the miners and factory workers, almost exclusively men, of the Allende era; now it’s primarily young people, particularly young women, whom Guzmán shows us. Like the worker socialists of Allende’s day, they have dreams of a new Chile, but their focus is no longer strictly on seizing or redistributing the nation’s resources, but on transforming human relations from top to bottom. Relations between the sexes must be made new; Chile’s Indigenous people must be granted control of the lands taken from them by the country’s rulers; and housing and healthcare must be recognized as rights. Guzmán sees the movement as a form of redemption—the return of the politically repressed. The film shows the meetings of the constituent assembly that is writing a new constitution for Chile, to replace the one written under the military dictatorship, and ends with Guzmán expressing the expectation that Chile will vote for the new constitution and become the most progressive nation in the Americas.

Soon after, the proposed constitution’s radicalness (far beyond what many Chileans were ready for), combined with a right-wing scare campaign against it, led to its defeat in a referendum. The Chile that Guzmán has spent his life hoping for—that Allende tried to establish and died for, alongside the thousands of Chileans who were murdered by the military—remains an imaginary one, but still a potential one. Through Guzmán’s films, and the life and afterlife of Salvador Allende, we are reminded both how difficult it is to make political dreams a reality, and how tenacious those dreams can be.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.

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