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Political documentaries are tough to review in that one's personal opinions on film can't help but merge with the subjects involved. Just as the makers of a film about as controversial a topic as the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende are bound to have a strong viewpoint, chances are that a reviewer will feel the same way. Of course, readers incensed over political film reviews are part of the equation as well. If they agree all is fine, but if the review goes against their personal viewpoint they'll condemn the reviewer as well as the horse he rode in on.
With that in mind I'll worry no further and write about Icarus Films' new DVD disc set on Patricio Guzmán's The Battle of Chile as I see it.
The overthrow of Allende, the legitimately elected leftist President of Chile, was a coordinated effort by the country's conservative faction, which refused to accept Allende's popular campaigns to re-form the country along socialist lines. Allende refrained from taking any dictatorial actions, so as not to give the oligarchs truly in control a legitimate reason to impeach him. The country was split down the middle. The majority of ordinary Chileans favored Allende's land reforms and nationalization of industry, and the former ruling class and the right-wing Christian Democratic Party angled to find political workarounds to bring him down. Allende's connections with key Army and Navy personnel prevented a military coup from simply seizing the government, a frequent solution for insoluble political disputes in Latin America. Although allied with the Russians, Allende remained faithful to the democratic process and refused to build a Soviet-style "security state" or use force against his enemies. The political opposition attacked his administration in any way they could.
The stalemate was broken by Henry Kissinger of the U.S. State Department and the C.I.A. director Richard Helms. Richard Nixon authorized them to covertly get rid of Allende; money, advice and military aid soon began flowing in to undermine Allende's efforts to pull Chile to the left. Financed by the U.S., strikes and demonstrations were organized to cripple the economy and discredit Allende; his programs were blocked in Chile's congress. Allende refused to do anything overtly dictatorial, such as arrest members of the opposition. He lost the backing of the armed forces with the assassination of a high-ranking Naval officer, his main conduit to the loyals in the ranks. Political and economic pressure from the U.S. continued. The army began operating on its own, raiding nationalized factories to search for weapons and harassing left-wing organizations supporting Allende. A coup attempt failed when only one or two small squads attempted to seize the streets around the presidential palace.
More strikes followed. Hoping to resolve the legislative challenge to the legitimacy of his administration, the still-popular Allende planned to hold a plebiscite to measure public support for his programs. Guided by C.I.A. experts, on September 11, 1973 the armed forces surrounded the palace and began bombing it from the air. Rather than be taken prisoner, Salvador Allende killed himself.
Patricio Guzmán had recently returned from film school in Madrid, Spain when he started making films about the Chilean political situation. The recently elected President Salvador Allende's Popular Unity party was encountering stiff resistance from opposition groups determined to undermine his administration. The film The Battle of Chile began with Guzmán filming public demonstrations and union meetings and interviewing people on the street. Using film stock provided by French director Chris Marker (who would eventually become a credited producer), Guzmán filmed right up to the 1973 coup. In the immediate aftermath, hundreds of dissidents, Popular Unity supporters and student activists were rounded up by the regime of General Pinochet. Director Guzmán and his producer were able to get their raw film onto a foreign ship and safely out of the country, before they themselves left. Their cameraman Jorge Müller Silva was arrested and "disappeared" -- in Pinochet's mass-murder atrocities that claimed the lives of thousands of Chileans. The movie had to be edited and finished outside of Chile, partly in Cuba.
The finished The Battle of Chile is a massive document that records the political activity in the street prior to the coup along with the opinions of Chileans on both sides of the political spectrum. We're impressed by the level of sophistication of the average Santiago citizen interviewed. We see massive rallies for the government and violent demonstrations by opponents. In many cases voiceover narration characterizes what is going on, and names our C.I.A. as directing behind the scenes, instigating strikes in copper mines and paying truckers and bus drivers to paralyze the cities by bringing their vehicles to a halt. Guzmán's cameramen film a huge audience for a pro-Allende speaker. They crowd jumps up and down in support of the government, the joke being that las momias ("the mummies") of the status-quo right are incapable of movement.
The filmmakers also capture frightening footage of street violence. Citizens run in panic from attacking army units. The first half of The Battle of Chile, Part 1, The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie concludes with some of the most dramatic documentary film ever shot. A Swedish cameraman (identified as Argentinian on the soundtrack) zooms in on a jeep and a truck filled with soldiers arriving in an intersection. An officer fires in our direction, and then we see a rifleman take careful aim -- directly at us. He fires, and a couple of seconds later the view flips to the ground. That cameraman was killed with one shot, having filmed his own murder.
Part 2, The Coup D'Etat becomes increasingly traumatic as Allende's fortunes go from bad to worse. His administration is blocked and his support from the armed forces evaporates. Loyal miners wonder why their President isn't striking back at his enemies, who accuse him of public crimes anyway. The show ends with Salvador Allende's impassioned speech to his country, vowing to never leave the palace. We see waves of jet planes bombing The Moneda Palace, a regal building in the middle of the congested capitol.
The extras for The Battle of Chile include a 1978 text review by Pauline Kael. She rightfully questions the form of the documentary: the voiceovers interpret what we're seeing in detail, frequently referring to unseen outside aid and direction from the U.S. State Department and the C.I.A. to implement the overthrow of the legally elected Chilean government. There is no mention of Allende's dealings with the Soviet Union. But time has proven the claims of The Battle of Chile to be true. Documents brought to light in later decades reveal America's fingerprints all over the coup and the repressive, bloody massacres that followed -- see the extras on Criterion's Missing DVD, or look up "Operation Condor" on Wikipedia. None of this is propaganda or conjecture. The Battle of Chile is an important document for remembering and learning from recent history .... a history actively suppressed by our own government.
Assembled a year after the other two sections, Part 3, The Power of the People is a recap and examination of the political forces within the country before the coup, focusing on the ways that the opposition was able to undermine Allende's legitimate economic reforms. Right wing opposition parties openly defy the law with illegal strikes, daring the President to overreact and give them a pretext for impeachment. Meanwhile, the loyalists within the nationalized industries watch their influence erode as common citizens become frustrated that Allende doesn't act against his enemies. A professor works out the problem in a lecture that almost uses mathematical formulas ... in this situation force is required because the opposition won't play by the rules. Politics IS force, one way or another -- the docu's firmly Marxist message is that the only political change is revolution, and all revolution means insurrection and bloodshed. Allende remained true to the vision of democracy and was crushed by reactionary counterforces as savage as any communist dictatorship. The lessons of The Battle of Chile might apply elsewhere, when a progressive administration is blocked by an unscrupulous unelected minority that claims to have God and Right on its side. A flawed but law-abiding representative democracy is the preferable option.
Extras on Icarus Films' beautifully mastered, four-disc The Battle of Chile place the documentary in historical perspective. A "fourth" chapter, Chile, Obstinate Memory (Chile, la memoria obstinada) is Patricio Guzmán's 1997 color follow-up. The director became a man without a country under the Pinochet regime, and was able to return only 24 years later. The film revisits the Moneda Palace, now rebuilt, with one of Allende's original loyalist guards pretending to be part of the film crew. We see photos and footage of the guards surrendering; at a meeting the survivors remember their friends murdered by Pinochet's death squads. We revisit the professor who gave the speech in Part 3 -- he discusses the film after showing it to his students, several of whom were unaware of the truth of the Allende coup. The final guest is Salvador Allende's widow, who talks of the Pinochet government seizing all of her husband's belongings, so she has nothing to give her grandchildren. We presume that Pinochet's aim was to prevent a Spartacus-like "Cult of Allende" from forming. Today President Allende is the most popular and revered Chilean in history.
In an extra interview, Patricio Guzmán describes smuggling the film to Sweden and arriving much later to find that not one reel had been lost. He says that 80% of the film is footage shot by his crews, with the rest taken from newsreels. Besides the Kael review, Icarus's insert booklet has an essay by Cecilia Ricciarelli on the director's film work as a whole. His La batalla de Chile is a very important political document ... if it hadn't been made, those who would distort history for their own ends would find their work much easier.
See also the Savant review for The Trial of Henry Kissinger.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Battle of Chile rates:
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.