A lifetime in film

IDFA: What can we say about the 2019 IDFA choice of Jørgen Leth (82) and Patricio Guzmán (78) for «Lifetime Achievement Award» and «Guest of Honor» respectively?
Truls Lie
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review
Published date: November 5, 2019

Both Leth and Guzmán have a whole life behind them making documentary films – but not the regular type of docs. Typically both of them employ the more or less essayistic way of doing film. Leth’s films, like The Perfect Human (1968), Life in Denmark (1972) and the two Scenes from America (1982/2002), are made up of short scenes reflecting on who we are, our identities and personal fragile situations. Guzmán’s films, like The Battle of Chile (1975–79) or even more in his last decade with Nostalgia for the Light (2010), Pearl Bottom (2015) or The Cordillera of Dreams (2019), play on the reflections that can be made by topic-driven films, use of indirect scenes, parallel worlds, and myths and memories.

Do both of these long-time filmmakers dig into the critical or intellectual take on reality? Yes. But I would say, especially after I made a doc about Leth in 2008–11 [See The Seduced Human], that he approaches the world mostly with an aesthetical, personal perspective. In contrast, Guzmán approaches the world with an ethical, social one. As Leth told me in an interview a long time ago, he was totally uninterested in saving some souls, making people wiser or telling them how to live their lives. But still, they both follow an existential path of matters that are critical for each of us. Political Haiti, where Leth has lived for decades, is more the background – while Guzmán makes Chile, where he grew up but run into exile, the foreground.

Jørgen Leth-MTR
Jørgen Leth

Although some of Leth’s films about Haiti touch on the political and brutal matters of society, they mostly are about personal, sensual, staged or interpreted situations. Like his The Foreign Correspondent (1983), actually a fiction film, which calls on the existential life of an older journalist who has seen it all and then lost life’s purpose. The Haitian chaos is just reflecting the chaos of the protagonist’s inner dissolving mentality. Maybe his best film and closest to Leth’s own experiences?

On Guzmán’s part, the main subject of more than 10 films is the political history and the consequences for Chile after the Pinochet’s coup d’état, when, in 1973, they killed the communist president Salvador Allende. The consequences are also examined by Guzmán’s daughter Camilla in her The Sugar Curtain (2006) – one of her father’s ten selected films for the 2019 IDFA.

Depression and traumas

Leth’s close to 50 films have observed at least as many aspects of human lives. Being a long-time observer of lives, I asked him in a previous interview – as a filmmaker, I respected – what the deeper meaning was for this lifelong vocation. He replied that he couldn’t answer; he didn’t view himself as a wise man or philosopher. But, as he said to me in Danish, he had one thing – «his trump card» was his openness and honesty about himself towards his viewers. He has been the subject in much of his works, a personal laboratory played out. But Leth has also told us that he has been fighting depression all his life: As a man coming from the Danish liberal ‘60s and ‘70s, he found the best cure for his inner chaos in living in outer chaos – Haiti. And when the earthquake came in 2010, where he was nearly killed and surrounded by dead Haitian people, his depression changed. He became more concerned about these social and traumatic issues. Now, with the premiere of his new film, I Walk at IDFA, we will learn more about him and about aging.

What then about Guzmán, who has been working with Chilean traumas his whole life? Guzmán told us in Thessaloniki ten years ago, that «a nation’s collective memory forms its expectations for the future». Think of how the winners, like Pinochet, write history. Allende’s legacy today is mostly ignored in the Chilean school- books. But in Chile, as we see in Obstinate Memor y (1997), The Pinochet Case (2001) or Chile, a Galaxy of Problems (2010), people do not like to dig into the past. Neither does Allende’s widow, Hortensia Bussi. She doesn’t want more pain, she says. In one of the films, Guzmán also shows students seeing his old The Battle of Chile and how they, after discussions of the history shown, end up in tears about the Chilean brutality.

Patricio Guzmán-MTR
Patricio Guzmán

Guzmán has been dutifully working to stop those Chilean atrocities from being repeated by making people remember. But this fall, for the first time since Pinochet’s takeover, the military is again out in the streets. Students and others today, unite, protesting in Santiago and other cities against huge social differences as, different from the Allende’s days, now water, electricity, education, woods, and roads are privatised. Once more, people are dying when protesting against the government.

When I, in Thessaloniki, asked Guzmán about his Freudian look into the traumatic past, he answered that the truth cleanses and purifies by sorting out some of the traumas from the unconscious.

Do we agree? Or how much interpretation and artistic treatment is necessary to grasp truth and reality – to handle such violence as we have seen in Haiti and Chile?


Her we find the essayistic style. Leth’s method, as he once told me, was this: «A film should be akin to a poem in its creation». Leth found his inspiration in Jean-Luc Godard and his camerawork. Although he never met him, he felt he was like a brother – at least in terms of films from Godard’s early period. As Guzmán’s films in the last decade show, he has learned from his inspiration, collaborator and his once friend Chris Marker. In a way, Marker introduced essayistic filmmaking as a method of experimenting, using reflections (with voice-over), subjectivity and experiences to make topic-driven films. Films that were a crossover of documentary, art films, and fiction.

And both – now IDFA-honored directors – have been inquisitorial or heretic (as the innermost character of essays, as the philosopher Adorno once wrote), as we have seen for years and years.