Obstinately Political: the Shift from Revolutionary to Revelatory Documentary

Patricio Guzman’s La Batalla de Chile: La insurreción de la burguesía (1975) and Chile, la memoria obstinada (1997) are two documentary films based a very important event in the history of modern Chile, yet they adopt significantly different aesthetic and narrative approaches. Many years separate them, and a number of political changes as well. La Batalla was filmed in the moment of tension between opposing parties leading up to Salvador Allende’s election in 1970 and the subsequent military coup that culminates in his death and marks the beginning of Pinochet’s military dictatorship in 1973. It is a political epic that uses the formal language of cinéma vérité to show the intensely politicized social life of 1970s Chile (Willis and Barlow 409). La Batalla was not shown in Chile until 1996, when Guzman returns to the country to make Memoria obstinada (Klubock 273).  Diverging from the style of La Batalla de Chile, Memoria is a personal chronicle that explores the theme of memory in the aftermath of the military dictatorship. Significantly, in this film Guzman uses La Batalla de Chile as a “springboard for memory” (Blaine 123), as the physical object that structures the entire film: after rescuing the reels and finishing the editing in Cuba, Guzman returns to Chile and shows the film to survivors of the coup and to various groups of students born mostly after the events (Blaine 116, 123). Both films extensively use interview and oral testimony. In La Batalla, it consists of mostly spontaneous interviews taken on the streets and in demonstrations, which heightens the sense of political involvement on the scale of an entire social class; while in Memoria, there are longer, more elaborate personal interviews that allow the interviewees’ subjectivities and wounds to surface (Rich 281).

In this essay, I will discuss the differences in both aesthetic and narrative strategies between La Batalla de Chile and Memoria obstinada; in doing so, will attempt to shed some light on the political role of documentary as practiced by Guzman. Various critics diverge in their assessment of how these two films, particularly in comparison with each other, succeed in activating contemporary political issues and in countering Pinochet’s efforts to erase memory and fabricate social consensus at the detriment of justice and truth. (Klubock 274, Blaine 120, Rich 289). I will contrast the arguments of three of these critics in order to reflect on how the move from radical, activist documentary filmmaking from the 1960s and 1970s to a more personal, ostensibly depoliticized approach in the 1980s and 1990s conveys political engagement and the activation of memory in the present.

Thomas M. Klubock argues that Memoria obstinada fails at linking memory to political questions of its time (275). The nostalgic mood permeating the film, with the emotionally charged testimonies and the music, does not foster a sense of collective memory capable of engaging with postdictatorial political issues; instead it creates a disconnect between past and present, which closes the past rather than activating it (Klubock 275- 277). Klubock discusses the shift between La Batalla de Chile and Memoria obstinada: the former uses the strategies of cinema vérité to engage with public spaces, collective memory and social groups, with the entire Chilean working class as its protagonist (Klubock 276, Willis and Barlow 403); the latter focuses on distinct subjectivities, private spaces and personal memory (Klubock 276). This shift “reflects the atomization and dispersion of social life in free market, post-coup Chile” (Klubock 276). In aesthetic terms, the shift is reflected in the choice of locations: La Batalla is shot on the streets, in public institutions and in demonstrations; while Memoria takes place mostly indoors, in homes and schools (Klubock 277; Rich 281-282). Some exceptions, which I will further discuss later, are noteworthy: a few scenes of Memoria take place in public spaces: the scene with Allende’s former bodyguards marching along a car, and the scene where the marching band is playing the official anthem of the Union Popular (UP) —Allende’s party— on a central artery. For Klubock, the use of private spaces in Memoria is “free of the political vocabulary that might reorient memory collectively to engage the present” (Klubock 277); it therefore illustrates “the success of Pinochet’s efforts to stamp out the left and depoliticize social life, as well as the obvious differences between the radical early 1970s and the post-cold war 1990s” (277). He successfully argues that an important part of public political life in the postdictatorial era is left our of Memoria obstinada, that is, the grassroots movement that have actively sought to revive the ideas of the UP and expose the distortions and human rights violations of the Pinochet regime through activist tactics such as protests (277). Yet, the limitation of this argument is that is does not give agency and significance to the political struggles negotiated at a personal and psychological level that have been going on in Chile ever since the coup.

Using B. Ruby Rich’s arguments allows for a more nuanced view, with a much needed self-reflexivity on the part of the critic of New Latin American cinema. Rather than reflecting the “the success of Pinochet’s efforts” as Klubock put it (277), the shift in documentary film from collective identity and “exteriority” towards personal identity and “interiority” could be considered as part of a grander shift in New Latin American cinema itself where “the personal is political” (Rich 281). This position allows finding political agency in the personal narratives and oral testimonies of Memoria obstinada, rather than a disconnected past and decontextualized present. Klubock rightly points out that the shift signals a difference between the radical character of the 1960s and the more fragmented 1980s and 1990s, where politics are not as obviously played out in the streets anymore (276). To that observation Rich would add that in this shift, politics of the postdictatorial era are played out in important ways within individuals themselves and in how they examine and negotiate their “acts of emotional restoration” (Rich 289). Importantly, “each political moment demands a specific aesthetic strategy” (Rich 278), and the transition and postdictatorial periods thus demand different aesthetic strategies than the 1970s. The move from an epic and “revolutionary” narrative form to a “revelatory” chronicle form allows highlighting in way in which political struggles in 1996, unlike 1975, are felt at the level of the everyday, the banal, the emotional and the subjective (Rich 281). Although less spectacular and public, they are nonetheless extraordinary (Rich 281). This shift rather than failing at illustrating the links between memory and contemporary politics allows for a more nuanced view at how complex the negotiation has become between the two in a social context where, not only political life has shifted, but concurrently, society “has neither healed nor even come to terms with a political past that lies just beneath the surface” (Blaine 123). In this sense, Memoria obstinada allows individual voices, instead of that of a whole social class in unison, to be heard and reclaimed (Rich 281).

Countering Kublock’s argument that Memoria obstinada presents the past as distant, closed and unconnected to the political questions of the present, Patrick Blaine argues that Guzman activates not only the past, but new memories as well (120). By screening La Batalla de Chile in Memoria obstinada to its participants, Guzman actively encourages another type of subversive action, different from mass demonstrations and protests: the use of documentary —its preservation and most importantly its display— as a political action in itself, countering the numbing of memory encouraged by the dictatorship and the transition (Blaine 120). Blaine underlies that:

Because it had not been commercially exhibited in Chile, Guzman’s screening of La Batalla de Chile made visible memories that had been actively erased by the dictatorial regime and the transition’s ethos of leaving the past in “its place.” In the new self-reflexive film Chile, La memoria obstinada, these reactivated memories, combined with the rhetorical conditions of their production through the interaction with the older film, are challenged and merged with the 1990s viewing audiences’ own personal memories. (Blaine 123)

Important here are the various levels of memory that are reactivated and overlapped like a palimpsest: the survivors’ lived experience superimposed with their recollection as well as the footage they see of it; the students’ first viewing of a part of their history that they were denied; the viewers of Memoria obstinada at its release in 1997; and us today as viewers of La Batalla de Chile through all of these lenses as well as Memoria obstinada itself, with our own distant knowledge or perhaps ignorance of these events.

Equally important are the juxtapositions of footage from La Batalla with the recreated shots of the same spaces in Memoria. The shot of Plaza de la Constitución at the time of the making of Memoria depicts a certain emptiness; we see a few people hurrying to get somewhere as well as some policemen. It is intercut with footage from La Batalla showing the same Plaza where a wave of demonstrators is jumping up and down chanting political slogans. This juxtaposition illustrates the absence of public political life posterior to a dictatorship that has “muted people’s voices, essentially endangering even the survivors’ viability as historical entities and erasing their political agency” (Blaine 122), an agency which the documentary gives these survivors back by giving them a voice, through testimony, and supplying two layers of visual documentation for their historical memory —the original film, La Batalla, and a new one, Memoria obstinada. Furthermore, Guzman also activates the present of Memoria obstinada through various re-enactments that resemble performance art in their form (Blaine 122). The first performative moment is the scene when Allende’s former bodyguards march with a car as they did in the president’s processions in the 1970s, but this time without Allende and without the crowd, illustrating the previously discussed shift from exteriority to interiority in political life. The second instance of performance is the scene where a marching band plays the UP’s anthem across a central street, which causes mixed reactions on the pedestrians. Both of these narrative strategies, juxtaposition and re-enactment, evoke the way in which memories may be revealed by sound, sight and emotion, and I would add by documentary film; thus reviving their meaning in the present (Blaine 123).

In sum, the shift from a revolutionary style of filmmaking to a more personal one in which the political is situated at the level of the everyday, is exemplified by Patricio Guzman’s La Batalla de Chile and Chile, la memoria obstinada. Dismissing Memoria obstinada as too personal and not “activist” enough would be denying the subtler and more complex political work that the film does at the level of subjectivities, with the complex aesthetic and narrative strategies it utilizes. Guzman aptly uses juxtaposition and re-enactment as devices to activate both memories of the past and new memories that disrupt the silence and erasure imposed by years of military regime. The shift is also part of a greater trend within New Latin American cinema itself, which cannot be considered separately from its particular and shifting political contexts. New Latin American cinema could be said to always be political, even when it is not overtly so, as the gaps and absences illustrate possible spaces of discussion and resistance.

26 September 2013

Works cited

Blaine, Patrick. "Representing Absences in the Postdictatorial Documentary Cinema of Patricio Guzmán." Latin American Perspectives 40.1 (2013): 114-30. Web.

 Klubock, Thomas. "History and Memory in Neoliberal Chile: Patricio Guzman's Obstinate Memory and the Battle of Chile." Radical History Review 85 (2003): 272-81. Print.

Rich, B. Ruby. "An/Other View of New Latin American Cinema." New Latin American Cinema. Ed. Michael T. Martin. Vol. 1. Detroit (Mich.): Wayne State UP, 1997. 273-97. Print.

 Wallis, Victor, and John D. Barlow. "Documentary as Participation: The Battle of Chile."Show Us Life: Toward a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary. By Thomas Waugh. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1984. 403-16. Print.