People often refer to journalism as the first draft of history, but for some it’s the only draft. The Battle of Chile, Patricio Guzman’s acclaimed documentary trilogy about the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende, contains a terrifying shot of Chilean soldiers opening fire on the cameraman. It’s the morning of June 29—ten weeks before the military, backed by the American CIA, brought down Allende—and a renegade armored regiment is attempting to storm La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago. Leonardo Henrichsen, a reporter for Swedish public television, trains his lens on an army officer strutting around an intersection. The officer spots him, takes dead aim at the camera, and fires; two more soldiers on a transport truck squeeze off shots at Henrichsen. The image spirals slightly and then Henrichsen goes down, his lens dropping to the pavement and the screen whiting out. He died that night.

In a video interview conducted for the film’s DVD release, Guzman estimates he was only about 80 meters from Henrichsen, at the next intersection, when the cameraman was shot. But Guzman has lived to complete many more drafts of contemporary Chilean history, and a retrospective of his work this month at the Gene Siskel Film Center amounts to no less than a great national chronicle. Film Center will screen all three parts of The Battle of Chile—The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie (1975), The Coup D’Etat (1976), and The Power of the People (1979)—as well as Guzman’s more recent documentaries about the coup: Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997), The Pinochet Case (2001), and Salvador Allende (2004). The retrospective opens with a weeklong run of his stunning new essay film Nostalgia for the Light (2010), and its grandly philosophical treatment of the past stands in stark contrast to the street-level immediacy of the trilogy that made his reputation.

Born in Santiago, Guzman studied filmmaking in Madrid in the late 60s and returned during the early days of the Allende regime to witness a Chile unlike anything he’d ever known. “The streets were full of people, there was an enthusiasm, parades all over the place, meetings, celebrations, mobilizations, in the rural areas, in neighborhoods, in front of the Government Palace. There was a kind of permanent mobilization going on. Joyful, full of life, with music and singing. . . . It was like a state of communal infatuation.” The young man scored a deal to make El Primer Año, a 16-millimeter film about the first year of the Allende administration, and two years later, with the great French filmmaker Chris Marker as a producer, set out to record the right-wing backlash against Allende, this time with a more comprehensive game plan that enabled him to present the conflict in all its social and political complexity. The Battle of Chile would cover the parliament and the presidency, but also the unions, the factories, the universities, the people on the street.

The end result is, above all, a triumph of popular reporting. The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie gets going with a fascinating 16-minute sequence shot on March 4, 1973, the day of the parliamentary election that was widely viewed as a referendum on Allende’s socialist programs. Guzman shows up at a parade for the left-wing Popular Unity party, where a variety of working-class people testify to the better conditions they’ve enjoyed under Allende. That night, when the media predict a win for the right-wing National Party, Guzman races along lines of honking cars to record the drivers’ elation. In fact, the voters have solidly endorsed Allende, and in the following months, as Guzman explains in a series of chapters, the right uses various tactics to destabilize the government: hoarding and black marketeering of basic necessities, pulling out private buses from the public transport system, fomenting student disturbances at universities, mounting a strike against the nationalized copper mines, and using its slim parliamentary majority to indict Allende’s ministers.

Events accelerate in The Coup D’Etat, by far the most arresting of the three movies. Guzman picks up the chronology with the failed June assault and continues through the summer as the coup gathers force. Allende fails to win a parliamentary vote declaring a state of emergency, and his attempts to form a governing alliance with the liberal Christian Democrats is complicated by the assassination of his naval aide-de-camp. Protest marchers call for a popular militia to protect against the armed forces, but the various factions can’t come up with a workable plan. Meanwhile, the military takes advantage of a previously unenforced weapons law to mount an endless series of raids against left-wing groups (in one case 200 marines touch down in a Santiago graveyard and throw open caskets in a fruitless search for guns). Finally the military, backed by the U.S. government, launches an attack on the presidential palace on September 11, 1973, and Allende dies. The military’s claim that Allende shot himself is belied by his last radio broadcast, in which he promises to “repay the loyalty of the people with my life.”

Guzman shipped his voluminous footage off to Stockholm for safekeeping and, after spending two months incarcerated at the National Stadium, fled Chile; he edited the first two parts in Havana, where he filled out his own material with footage from the newsreel company Chile Films. By the time the first two parts began drawing acclaim at international festivals, Guzman was burned out, and he took a two-year hiatus before returning with the third and last part, The Power of the People. Having traced the efforts of the bourgeoisie to strangle the economy in part one, Guzman backtracks in part three and approaches those same months from a different angle, this time stressing the workers’ tireless efforts to defend the Allende government. In fall 1972 a trucking strike organized by the right wing backfires and leads to the creation of autonomous “industrial belts” that actually increase the workers’ control over production. People’s stores, created as an alternative to the private shopkeepers who are in league with the truckers, feed half the population of Santiago. Through it all, workers express their solidarity on the streets, marching and denouncing the “mummies” who represent Chile’s capitalist past.

The past is Guzman’s major preoccupation in Nostalgia for the Light, and viewers caught up in the 16-millimeter, black-and-white urgency of The Battle of Chile might be taken aback by the still, majestic images that dominate the new film. It opens with a beautiful montage of gears turning and wheels tracking as a giant telescope slowly spins into action and the dome above it slides open. An astronomy buff since childhood, Guzman has arrived in the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth, whose incredibly clear skies have made it home to two major observatories. There are some staggering views of the galaxy, though as one astrophyicist reminds us, we’re always looking at history because of the time light takes to reach the earth. The desert itself turns out to be another repository for the past: the same dryness that precludes cloud cover also helps to mummify the dead, which has made the Atacama a destination for archaeologists as well as astronomers. In a powerful cross-fade, Guzman equates the gaping eye socket of a mummified skull with the spiraling image of a galaxy; the desert, he insists, is a “vast open book of memory, page after page.”

Some of these memories are unbearable. As Guzman reveals, the Atacama Desert served as a burial ground—or, more accurately, a dumping ground—for victims of the military junta that ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990. In fact, the body of a young woman prisoner was uncovered during the documentary shoot. Guzman interviews two of the elderly women who prowl around the desert searching for remains of their “disappeared” loved ones, and for them the Atacama must seem as vast and unknowable as the glittering night sky above. One woman explains tearfully how she grasped at some sort of closure after being reunited with her lost brother’s mummified foot, found still inside its shoe. This struggle to process the past is no abstract matter for Guzman either: Jorge Muller Silva, his loyal cameraman on The Battle of Chile, was arrested a year after the coup and disappeared from the Villa Grimaldi torture camp. By the end of Nostalgia for the Light, reckoning with history has become a grand and powerful theme, unifying the celestial, the terrestrial, and the political.

Reflecting on the death of Leonardo Henrichsen, Guzman explained to his interviewer how a cameraman or soundman can feel a false sense of protection while peering through his viewfinder or listening to headphones: “You’re in your own world. There’s a feeling that in those moments action is so enthralling and a battle is so enthralling as well that you forget everything else. You feel scared but at the same time something makes you be . . . in the middle. It’s unconscious. You feel more scared afterwards and before. Before something explodes you say, something’s going to happen here. When it explodes, you’re already in the dance.” The Battle of Chile gives an unparalleled sense of being in the middle of the action, in the momentum of the dance. Nostalgia for the Light is another sort of achievement entirely, a moving reminder that the perspective of nearly 40 years can be both a blessing and a terrible burden. 

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