Salvador Allende and ‘The Battle of Chile’

The body of former Chilean president Salvador Allende was exhumed two days ago in an attempt to confirm whether he committed suicide — as long accepted even by his family and political allies — during the 11 September 1973 coup d’état led by General Augusto Pinochet or, in fact, was killed in the bombardment of the presidential palace.  The news called to mind one of the greatest documentary records of a revolutionary political moment ever filmed: The Battle of Chile, which Patricio Guzmán and a small crew shot in the workers committees, on the barricades, and in the halls of power in the months leading up to the coup.  The three-part film is many hours long and, if anything, too short: the slow accumulation of detail and broad range of street interviews creates a powerful sense of a society at an impasse, when radical action comes to be seen on both the Left and the Right as the only path to resolution.

I saw Part I of The Battle of Chile at Film Forum in New York as part of a double bill, followed by Chile, Obstinate Memory, which is a film that Patricio Guzmán made years later about showing footage from The Battle of Chile to Chileans to challenge the willed amnesia in the Pinochet era about the violence employed by the military.  Film Forum is a very small theater and at intermission I listened as a man behind me, clearly Chilean, explained to his companions the basic outlines of Chilean politics at that time.  It was a dispassionate explanation, like a professor answering questions after class.  Then the lights went down and Chile, Obstinate Memory began with its claim that Chileans had learned to control and suppress these memories and suddenly the Chilean man behind me began to weep in the dark, the deep, pained sobbing of a wounded animal.  It is that kind of film.

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