Patricio Guzman's 'Chile, Obstinate Memory'
By Pamela Yates
There is one that film keeps my dreams alive for a better, peaceful, more just world--one to which I go back often in these dark days. It is Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997) by Patricio Guzmán.
Guzmán has turned the seminal trauma of his youth--the death of President Salvador Allende in a coup d'état and the subsequent subjugation of Chile's long-established democracy by General Augusto Pinochet--into a meditation on memory and forgetting. During the Pinochet dictatorship, the military's version of history--the junta as heroic guardians of social order--was imposed.
Like a messenger from the past, after 23 years in exile, Guzmán returns in the film to his native Chile, armed with his 1976 film The Battle of Chile, his unflinching chronicle of the coup d'état. He shows the earlier film--which has been censored since its completion--to a generation of Chileans raised under military rule, jarring their conscience and questioning their collective memory. Chile, Obstinate Memory creates a dynamic tension between the older generation who lived through the creation and brutal destruction of a popular democratic movement, and the younger generation who has been taught that the destruction of this movement was necessary to save Chile from chaos and Communism.
Chile, Obstinate Memory is brilliant, personal cinema of universal dimensions. Guzmán sparsely narrates the film. His emotional restraint, yet deep connection, is felt in every slow dolly shot, every extreme close-up, every silence. He weaves personal stories of courage and resistance to the coup d'état with older people's ideas about the meaning of memory. José Balmes, the Chilean artist who has done a series of paintings based on photographs from the day of the coup, notes that, "Memory and forgetting are recurrent questions, like the positive and the negative--the action and thought--of human beings during their lifetime." Ernesto, the soulful teacher at the heart of the film, explains, "‘Recordar' [Spanish for remembering] comes from the Latin ‘re,' return, and ‘cordum,' the heart. Which means, ‘Returning to the heart'...to wake up again."
I was a young photojournalist working in Chile during the last year of the Popular Unity government of Allende. What I saw, what I absorbed, what I learned in that year has inspired all the films I've made, from When The Mountains Tremble (1983) to State of Fear (2005). So Chile is an obstinate memory for me, too. It breathes life and hope into the darkest moments, because it was a time when people dared to dream of justice, the right to an education, good health and a roof over all heads. It was a noble dream. The failure of that dream was hard to take. As Ernesto says in the film, "You can't progress without dreams, because dreams are the way we understand life."
Ten years after Obstinate Memory was finished, Pinochet is on trial for corruption and human rights violations, and Michele Bachelet, a former torture victim whose father was killed by the military regime, is president. The dream may yet flourish 35 years later, because the memory was kept alive.
Guzmán dedicates Obstinate Memory to his daughters Andrea and Camila. Andrea is a filmmaker whose debut documentary, The Sugar Curtain, premiered at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. And Camila is part of the DocuSur team, a vibrant Spanish film festival dedicated to the genre of documentary filmmaking.
The dream lives on.
Chile, Obstinate Memory is available through Icarus Films.
Pamela Yates' latest film, State of Fear: The Truth About Terrorism,has been translated into 48 languages and broadcast in 157 countries. Yates and her company, Skylight Pictures, are committed to producing artistic, challenging and socially relevant independent documentary films on issues of human rights and the quest for justice.