Patricio Guzmán has been documenting the tragic and brave history of his native Chile for the last five decades.
His first feature documentary, El primer año (1971) captured the optimism surrounding the election of Salvador Allende. In his following documentary, La respuesta de octubre (1972), Guzmán narrated how Chile’s workers managed to keep production going in the country’s factories in spite of the boycotts organized by the right, starting with the truck owners’ work stoppage. His third film, the monumental three-part documentary, The Battle of Chile (1975-79), a blow-by-blow account of the U.S.-supported coup d’état that overthrew Allende’s government, became a fundamental text of Latin American cinema.
Guzmán may have lived in exile most of his life, but Chile—and Pinochet’s legacy—were always on his mind and heart. He returned to Chile in 1997 to show The Battle of Chile to a new generation of Chileans after the ban on the film was lifted: the result is an extraordinary piece about memory and reckoning, Chile, the Obstinate Memory. His previous three documentaries—Nostalgia for the Light (2010), The Pearl Button (2015), and The Cordillera of Dreams (2019)—are more contemplative, more essayistic in style as he grapples with the wounds left behind by a ruthless dictatorship and compares the search for life on other planets with the search for the disappeared by their mothers in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile and its use by the dictatorship as a burial ground for those they disappeared, while using the Andes as a focal point for the country’s identity and history.
Now, in his new, vibrant, and urgent documentary, My Imaginary Country, he returns to the streets of Santiago where a second revolution is brewing, one without any leaders or ideologies, born out of the frustration of a people tired of being ignored and abused by the powers that be, one that gives Guzmán a strong sense of déjà vu and leaves him hopeful for his country’s future.
Guzmán may have missed the spark that ignited the fire—the decision of the former Piñera administration’s decision to increase transportation fares by 30 pesos. But Guzmán was there to capture the massive street protests, the government’s repressive actions, and how they paved the way for a plebiscite for the establishment of a Constitutional Assembly and the election of the first leftist leader to the country’s presidency since Allende. A revolution where women had a leading voice—all of Guzmán’s interviewees are women from all walks of life: working class, students, professionals, homeless—because, as journalist Mónica González acknowledges in the film, “How many women represent the majority of poor families today, heads of the household without a man to help them raise their children? This movement will have the faces and the voices of women.” This, after all, is also a fight against the patriarchy.
What started as a student protest over a fare increase—“Fear-dodging is another way to fight,” they chant as they jump turnstiles—turned into something much larger as citizens joined them. President Piñera declared that the country was at war with these protesters and called the military—and the equally militarized police—on them. The response? Over 1.2 million people gathered at Parque Baquedano on October 25, 2019, the largest peaceful political protest in the country’s history. A drone shot captures the awesome enormity of the protest as hundreds of thousands pack Santiago’s every street and avenue.
And yet, the military kept responding with water cannons and rubber bullets aimed directly at the eyes of protesters and photographers. One of them, Nicole Kramm, recalls how she felt her eye being knocked against the back of her skull after being hit by a rubber bullet.
Young people fought back. They hammered and tore out chunks of pavement, turning them into smaller stones, and using them as weapons. There are also celebratory scenes where protesters play drums and brass bands join in, turning these demonstrations into a grand party.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, a group of women dressed in green and led by the women’s collective Las Tesis sing “Un violador en tu camino,” which became an anthem against gender violence for women worldwide. To see it performed for the first time in the streets of Chile is not only invigorating and inspiring—the anthem should be picked by Iran’s women as they protest against decades of repressive politics imposed by that country’s Muslim regime—it is also a testament to the positive performative nature of protests across Latin America.
Guzmán also depicts the process that led to the creation of the Open Councils that would help shape the new constitution, the election of a Mapuche woman as head of the Constitutional Assembly, and, finally, Boric’s victory speech, where he makes a point to acknowledge the role women played in the protests. You can’t help but feel for Guzmán as he bears witness with his camera to a day he thought would never come and as he movingly expresses his hope and optimism. Even though the new constitution may have been defeated in a nationwide plebiscite last September, his hope is not unfounded.
The film leaves one with the feeling that things will change for Chile, even if the road for change is a long one. You can’t defeat more than 30 years of repression and the mindset it creates overnight. As filmmaker María San José Martín says in the documentary, “Major social change takes a long time. We must be patient. These changes are not for us. They are for the next generation.”
My Imaginary Country is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York, the Laemmle Monica Center in Los Angeles, the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, and The Brattle in Boston with more dates and cities to be confirmed.
Featured image by Imaginary Country/Icarus Films