JWR Articles: Film/DVD - The Battle of Chile (Director/Writer: Patricio Guzmán) - July 7, 2010
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The Battle of Chile

5 5
262 min.

The danger of being led by ideology

“The left, united, will never be defeated.”

This slogan, one of many chanted by the devoted followers of President Salvador Allende, is just as prophetic for the communist and socialist forces trying to affect real change in Chile during the early 1970s as it is for any broad-base political movement that has some degree of power, but not enough to move its revolutionary ideals forward and turn them into concrete programs and policies.

With the release of this four-disc edition of Patricio Guzmán’s defining work both as a documentary filmmaker and a Chilean, the deadly story of left vs. right is more widely available than ever before. As well as the complete, three part The Battle of Chile: The struggle of an unarmed people, the 1997 Chile, Obstinate Memory (a fascinating discussion of selective memory and willful blindness) and a reflective interview with Guzman add even more background detail and understanding to this chronicle of Allende’s struggle and ultimate failure to realize his vision or fulfill this supporters’ versions of their collective dream. The essays in the accompanying booklet are also most instructive.

Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie begins the journey with a painstaking look at the imminent state elections. Will Popular Unity seize control of Parliament from the Christian Democrats and the National Party? The skillfully woven interviews (Pedro Chaskel’s apparently seamless editing is one of the film’s greatest triumphs) include voices from all points of view (“Chile’s always had a promising future,” laden with irony also speaks volumes about the turbulent decades to come) but both sides are so entrenched that the comment “civil war is inevitable in any event” seems more a matter of fact than just fear mongering.

After a premature victory celebration is quashed by the possibly rigged results (44% of the popular vote does not a majority make) the grim reality of a much longer struggle by the comrades to achieve equality with their corporate masters (curiously referred to as the “mummies”) sets in. The U.S.-led embargo and millions in cash from the CIA ensure the difficulties of the Allende government will only increase. Lack of parts to keep the trucks and industrial machine making its production targets, lack of food and imported goods fuelling a huge black market and the ongoing nationalization/occupation of companies by the workers create the perfect storm for violent clashes and economic ruin.

Guzmán’s strategy (as he clearly described in the interview segment) makes effective use of “invisible elements” to capture the unstoppable march to the coup d’état with his own self-imposed ration of one reel of film per day (~10 minutes; 16 mm). Accordingly, he sends cameraman Jorge Müller Silva (one of thousands to “disappear” after September 11, 1973) and his crew to the meetings of trade unions, parliamentarians and senators as their frequently eloquent, always fulsome speeches and discussions pave the way for decisions that will shape the country’s destiny. Not surprisingly, there is precious little footage of the military’s top brass plotting their course (it takes the murder of Arturo Araya, Allende’s naval aide-de-camp by the “fascists” to draw the highest ranks out of their lairs for the state funeral accompanied by an especially dour reading of the Chopin’s Funeral March—there’s a momentary chill as dictator-in-waiting Augusto Pinochet appears briefly in frame).

A strike at the vital copper mines lasts 76 days but never finds complete solidarity. “It’s nothing to do with politics—just our rights” says one worker. The mines are never forced to close (they must operate 24/7) thanks to many of the relatively well-paid employees (and government supporters) refusing to join the work stoppage. Still, the loss of revenue is yet another challenge to Allende’s authority. Seen from afar (both distance and time) the entire situation is a curious dilemma where the alleged fascists (financed largely by the champions of capitalism) are called upon to wreak havoc and destroy the socialists and possibly their country as well.

Coup d’état, with its menacing helicopter drone describes the events from the failed attempt (June 29, 1973) to the successful one in November. The military is more present, conducting dozens of searches for “weapons of right wing destruction,” finding none. Amongst his supporters, it seems Allende’s popularity never wavers (“We want a popular militia” is now their naive battle cry. Yet even the president tries to find some middle ground with the industrial leaders (notably Swiss and English firms) who have been caught up in the workers’ zeal to occupy and run the factories themselves. That sort of compromise sows the seeds of dissatisfaction amongst the hardliners, once again dulling a truly united response to the arrogant right.

As the truck strike further cripples commerce and August comes to an end, the opposition-dominated Parliament effectively “authorizes” the coup, hoping rank-and-file troops (most of the officers don’t need convincing) will strive for the greater good and help take the government they’ve sworn to defend down.

The Catholic Church is eventually drawn into the fray and finally supports the strike, making life even more difficult for the Christian Democrats (who, like the Church—which declines—are eventually courted by Allende to join the Cabinet), only the military finally accepts the desperate effort by Allende to hold power, yet, like so many of Shakespeare’s plays, the eventual betrayer—here in the personage of Pinochet—is invited into the inner sanctum only to brutally oust his host and take the helm. After his colleague, General Pratt, resigns (seeing the bloody writing on the wall), Pinochet becomes Commander-in-Chief.

No one is really surprised when the palace is bombed on September 11. The stoic Allende is reportedly to have said “I will repay the loyalty of the people with my life.” And he courageously does.

As soon as Pinochet can find a microphone he speaks of “saving the country from chaos” even as civil liberties vanish and the soccer stadiums become concentration camps in aid of “re-establishing public order and [getting] rid of Marxist cancer.”

What’s the good news? Perhaps a far more deadly and horrific civil war has been avoided.

Power of the People concludes the set and is far more lyrical, right from the opening, featuring ever-so-welcome flute and string tracks. Cobbled together by Guzmán after a self-imposed “rest” of two years from the editing suite, this concluding essay lets the people speak for themselves more than ever, revisiting many of the events, issues and details from the previous two.

The stark reality can’t be avoided. Having raised their vote to 44% at the height of their popularity, even the staunchest Allende disciples understand they will never reach a majority. “So now is the time … It’s time to crush the other classes … It’s now or never.”

And never it came to be. JWR

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