Monday, April 4, 2011

The war against forgetting: Salvador Allende

Patricio Guzmán has devoted much of his career to navigating the foggy history of his native Chile, particularly those few jubilant and turbulent years marked by the unprecedented non-violent ascension of its democratically elected socialist government and that long trail of dark years marked by terror, torture, order and oppression, by ostensible prosperity and cooperation with imperialist foreign powers, that followed. There’s this notion that Chile’s elder populace (those who didn’t, like Guzmán, go into exile), thinned out along its peculiar narrow stem of diverse topography, have constructed their national fog by way of a collective willful amnesia surrounding those aforementioned years. This amnesiac fog is invoked in the very title of Guzmán’s film
Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997). I wonder if the process inherent in journeying through this fog, unable to apprehend a view of what’s ahead or behind, hasn’t contributed to that special wandering, uncharted feeling that accompanies some of Guzmán’s finest, most personal films.

This feeling is certainly among the most compelling elements of Guzmán’s
Nostalgia For the Light (2010), a masterpiece essay film that traverses the Atacama Desert in search of distant stars and bones of the disappeared. Yet this feeling can even be found in the more conventional documentary Salvador Allende (2004), now available on DVD from Icarus. After repeatedly encircling the Allende enigma, most famously in the three-part, Chris Marker-produced The Battle of Chile (1975-79), Guzmán took this project as an opportunity to take direct aim at Chile’s controversial fallen president, about whom there remains a conspicuous paucity of commentary. Yet there’s nothing especially direct about Salvador Allende. It finds its path as it proceeds.

Guzmán narrates
Salvador Allende, emphasizing the first-person approach, while his soft voice can also frequently be heard off-camera posing questions. Guzmán was in his early 30s when Allende came into power (and passed 15 doubtlessly despairing days of detainment in the National Stadium following the coup) and is able to cull a healthy portion of Salvador Allende from his own archive of footage, shot between Allende’s 1970 inauguration and 1973, the year of that other September 11, when US-backed military forces ousted Allende’s government (a day Guzmán hauntingly evokes with repeated images of flames consuming the Palacio de la Moneda following the aerial bombing). Early in the film, Guzmán explains that he wants to get to know the Allende beneath the icon. He travels to Allende’s native Valparaiso, where the city’s former mayor persuasively insists that Allende (who received support from Cuba, but not from the USSR) was neither Marxist nor Leninist but libertarian, having received his first political education from an anarchist Italian shoemaker. But as the film goes along this effort to focus on Allende the man quietly dissipates, replaced by a more straightforward chronicle of Allende’s pre-presidential political career, conveying his charisma and popularity, highlighted by memorable images such as the one of gleeful rural children chasing his departing campaign train.

Later in
Salvador Allende Guzmán details Allende’s difficult presidency, his agrarian reforms and nationalization of the mining industry, the hostilities directed at his policies, and his outspoken contempt for US interference and multinational corporations. A notable, revealing interview with former US Ambassador to Chile Edward Korry confirms Nixon’s explicit commands to get rid of Allende by any means necessary. Yet, appropriately for a film about a politician devoted to workers and the poor, Guzmán finds many of his strongest sequences by giving the floor to ordinary Chileans. He documents a lively debate between several former UP militants about whether or not Allende should have defended the government and properly armed the militia. This debate also pries open the thorny question of Allende’s suicide, undertaken just as the army was about to take him prisoner, an event which only compounds the mystery of his life. One could argue that Salvador Allende falls short of its ostensible goal in that Allende is virtually as enigmatic a figure by the film’s end as he was at its start. But the fortitude of this enigma is also, it seems to me, the film’s point. Allende, though revered by Guzmán as he is by millions around the world, is a truly singular, enduringly contentious figure—so singular that very few have made significant attempts to tell his story. The value of Guzmán’s film is that even in its limitations it makes an enormous contribution to a conversation about Allende that needs to be maintained. In Guzmán’s films the personal inevitably merges with the political, and the articulated memories of the filmmaker and his subjects continue to wage a non-violent war against the perils of forgetting.

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