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Story of Film - November 2013
Remind Me

The Battle of Chile, Part 1

In 1970, Salvador Allende became president of Chile, the first Marxist to lead a South American nation. Director Patricio Guzmán, who had studied filmmaking in Europe, returned to his native Chile soon after Allende took office. Politically aware, Guzmán was fascinated by the reaction to Allende's presidency. "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," he later recalled. "It was like a state of communal infatuation." He decided to document that historic time, and made his first documentary The First Year (1971), which covered the beginning of Allende's presidency.

Allende had been elected by winning only a third of the popular vote. By 1972, the reforms instituted by his Popular Unity coalition, such as nationalizing industries and banks and redistributing wealth were meeting resistance from the right and center-right, and from foreign interests, including the United States, which owned copper mines there. There were strikes, economic chaos and deprivation. Allende needed to win substantial support in the congressional elections in spring of 1973 to continue implementing his policies. Guzmán was working on a fiction film project about a Chilean historical figure, but decided that what was happening in the present was more important. He and his crew -- which called itself "El Equipo Tercer Año" (the Third Year Team) -- took to the streets covering demonstrations, interviewing ordinary people, attending meetings in Parliament, factories, union halls and homes, documenting history as it happened. French filmmaker Chris Marker had been impressed by The First Year and donated film stock for the new project. The resulting three-part film, The Battle of Chile, looked at the final year of Allende's presidency, the rise of the opposition to the leftist government, the coup that toppled it, and the failed effort to form a socialist society.

Part One of The Battle of Chile, subtitled "The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie," begins on the eve of a congressional election in March of 1973. Supporters of various parties and candidates confidently predict victory and speak knowledgeably about the issues. Although both the left and the right score some gains, no side wins a decisive victory, and as the stalemate continues violence escalates. A strike of the workers in a copper mine responsible for 20% of Chile's earnings cripples the nation. With the tacit support of the United States, the opposition moves to limit Allende's power and plans a coup d'etat. Part One ends with an attempted attack on the presidential palace by a rogue military unit, and a shocking incident that shows how serious the divisions have become. The film's viewpoint and sympathies are unapologetically Marxist, but even those who don't share its politics will be caught up in the film's in-the-moment immediacy.

Just after the Allende government was overthrown by the military, Guzmán was arrested and imprisoned for two weeks. Once freed, he fled Chile and finished The Battle of Chile in exile. Two of the films had world premiere screenings at the Cannes Film Festival, Part One in 1975, and Part Two in 1976. Part Three was completed in 1978. Critics around the world hailed The Battle of Chile as a new kind of cinematic actuality. "This documentary cross-section view of a collapsing government is surely unprecedented...We actually see the country cracking open," wrote Pauline Kael in the New Yorker. Louis Marcorelles of the French journal Le Monde praised the film as "the first masterpiece of a new type of political analysis. The cinema has never before given us such a history lesson." And Spanish critic Jose Maria Carreño called it "Exemplary as a motion picture and for its contribution to documentary cinema."

During the military regime that followed the coup, The Battle of Chile was banned in Chile. It was not until 1997 that Guzmán was able to return to his homeland and screen the films there. On that trip, he made another film, Chile: The Obstinate Memory (1997), talking to older Chileans who had lived through the tumultuous era he documented, and to students who had little knowledge of the past because it was forbidden to speak of it, and are outraged at what they learn. Guzmán has spent a major part of his career recording the painful history of Chile in the latter part of the 20th century.

Director: Patricio Guzmán
Producer: Chris Marker
Screenplay: Patricio Guzmán
Cinematography: Jorge Müller Silva
Sound: Bernardo Menz
Editor: Pedro Chaskel
96 minutes

by Margarita Landazuri