This probably isn’t the ideal way to go through Patricio Guzmán’s documentaries, but Icarus’ new eight-disc DVD box set Five Films By Patricio Guzmán does make sense when watched in reverse order. Start with Nostalgia For The Light, the multi-award-winning 2011 essay-film, which has the director out in Chile’s Atacama Desert, interviewing astronomers and searching for the bones of the citizens that Augosto Pinochet’s government “disappeared” in the 1970s. This is the work of a nearly 70-year-old artist, trying to gain perspective on a lifetime of documenting the ramifications of what he sees as the pivotal moment in Chilean history: when General Pinochet’s army violently ousted the democratically elected Marxist president Salvador Allende. As Guzmán turns over old rocks and gazes up at the glow from distant stars, Nostalgia For The Light considers how the past shapes the present. It’s a haunted, quietly despairing film, pondering whether the passage of time obliterates meaning.
The rest of Five Films is about drawing closer to the moment of truth. The 2004 bio-doc Salvador Allende gathers personal reminiscences about the man whom Guzmán didn’t just support, but lionized, and there’s something anxious about the exercise. (Guzmán’s like a longtime fan, revisiting an old favorite’s early work to see if it still holds up.) Salvador Allende also plays like a palate-cleanser after 2001’s The Pinochet Case, which deals with the frustrations of the dictator’s victims, as they await a war-crimes trial that the international community seems reluctant to conduct. The two documentaries work as companion pieces. The Pinochet Case is the more urgent of the pair, and more historically important. It captures the debate about Pinochet as it was raging, and answers any concerns about the precedent of convicting a national leader by recording the testimony of Chileans who’d seen their families torn apart. Then, to counter anyone who’d suggest that the 1973 military coup in an economically depressed Chile was inevitable and even necessary, Salvador Allende argues that the nation actually had the right man in charge, even if the U.S. government and the upper-classes were determined to sabotage him.
All of the documentaries in Five Films present Guzmán’s version of Chilean history as an objective reality, which is a questionable tactic journalistically but powerful aesthetically. It’s especially effective in 1997’s Chile, Obstinate Memory, which follows Guzmán back to Chile after years in exile. In between interviews with some of the old friends who stuck it out through the Pinochet years, the director totes a copy of his banned trilogy The Battle Of Chile to show to the teenagers and university students who were toddlers when Allende committed suicide, and who grew up hearing official justifications and obfuscations regarding the government’s strong-arming of dissidents. Some of these kids push back against the film, repeating what they’ve been taught all their lives. Others are in tears, shocked at the violence and betrayal that allowed them to enjoy a privileged youth.
As to the movie that rocked the students’ worldviews… well, it’s a masterpiece, plain and simple. Constructed from footage shot during the last months of the Allende administration—and then smuggled out of the country—The Battle Of Chile was released in three parts in 1975, 1976, and 1979, and is one of the most impressive achievements of the documentary form. Guzmán and his crew took to the streets well before their country descended into chaos and filmed the election that seemed to shore up Allende’s support, then the disruptive wildcat strikes that may have been orchestrated by the CIA, and finally the indiscriminate violence of Pinochet’s uniformed goons (one of whom shot and killed a cameraman, who caught his own death on film).
Again, these are Guzmán’s interpretations of what happened—supported in the decades since by many others, but still presented with an undisguised slant. As a piece of art, though, and in the context of the rest of this box set, all that really matters is what Guzmán thinks. What he presents in The Battle Of Chile is a counter-narrative to the one coming out of Chile at the time. He recalls a country that had been developing into a peaceful workers’ paradise, with an enlightened, lovable leader, until men with guns and the short-sighted bourgeoise shut it all down. And because of the freedom they were allowed back then, Guzmán and his crew got some remarkable shots of history in the making, balancing reporting, craft, and irony. If nothing else, the well-composed black-and-white footage of workers marching past movie theaters showing Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Violent City make a nice visual change of pace from so much of the rest of this set, which was shot on video and is heavy on straightforward talking-head interviews. (Later, by the time of Nostalgia, Guzmán figured out how to use digital technology to produce something beautiful.)
Five Films By Patricio Guzmán includes some recent shorts—mostly about astronomy, but also about how the Chilean justice system still hasn’t fully reckoned with the Pinochet era—alongside interviews with the director. The biggest extra is Boris Nicot’s 2014 documentary Filming Obstinately: Meeting Patricio Guzmán, shot during the making of this year’s Berlin Film Festival standout The Pearl Button (about the secrets below the waters along Chile’s long coastline). In Filming Obstinately, Guzmán asks whether there could ever be “a reliable author” of his country’s history, and he looks back at his older work with a mix of pride and detachment.
In the most moving sequence, Nicot shows Guzmán watching the students in Obstinate Memory, as they watch The Battle Of Chile. On one level, it’s a melancholy image, reflecting the layers that keep building up between an event and its interpretation. But it’s also hopeful, suggesting that if we keep looking back and looking back, we won’t just be able to simply see history as it happens, we’ll be able understand it.