«These letters will be a continuation of our conversations. I close my eyes and play with you. And I want to open my eyes tomorrow, August 18th, when you are eight years old…..Tell me how you are! We are writing to you en route, and you must write to us often. Remember always to write letters using black ink, not a pencil, because it is impossible to take pictures with a pencil. »
Is it possible for children to accept that their parents are abandoning them? And can parents be forgiven for sacrificing family companionship in order to fight for something greater?
In a sensitive and personal, yet insisting and award-winning documentary, depicts director Macarena Aguiló her childhood in «The Chilean Building» – a children’s collective run by the revolutionary movement MIR during the 1970s and 80s in Paris and Cuba, whilst their parents fought Pinochet’s violent and USA-supported dictatorship in Chile.
A central theme here is the void which appears as parents go to war and abandon their children in safety. The parents’ absence is the antithesis to the violence of war, and illustrates what it costs to do «the right thing» beyond measurable dimensions such as death, incarcerations and torture.
In 1975, little Macarena Aguiló was kept hostage and tortured by DINA, the Chilean surveillance organisation under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Following the kidnapping, Macarena’s mother fled to Paris with her daughter. At the end of the 1970s, revolutionary movement MIR decided to despatch exiled members back to Chile to defeat Pinochet. Macarena’s mother was one of the many who joined the fight and left their children in a collective known as Proyecto Hogares (Project homes), where 20 adults assumed the roles of «social parents» who cared for 60 children. After some time, the collective relocated to Cuba, into the «The Chilean Building». A lack of political results coupled with deaths in their native country put a dampener on hope and the will to fight, and an infectious despair resulted in the collective being dissolved.
Lost memories. The film is sensitively edited with a great variation in the use of historical excerpts from the children’s time in the collective, photographs, letters, drawings and interviews with the now adult children and the adults. The most powerful impression is left by Macarena as she reads her parents’ letters aloud. The sad guitar music forms the film’s touching and subdued backbone.
The excerpts of the collective period depict playtime and community spirit, and point towards a bright future. The little details bear witness of intimacy and care: An adult hand stuck in the running stream from a faucet, water splashed over a child’s skin. Children’s hands cleaning dirty laundry in milky white soapy water, wet clothes airing on a balcony.
But the adult children also speak of their memories on isolation, emptiness, longing and anger. They communicated with their parents via microfilm letters smuggled out of Chile. Gradually, they forgot their parents’ faces. And as the collective relocated from Paris to Cuba, the children went through yet another separation: They were enrolled into a gender split public school and only allowed to see their social family at the weekends. Through their meeting with the Cuban schooling system it became evident that the collective’s free upbringing was incompatible with a stringent education system: The children did not know the meaning of a «word» or a «sentence», and ran home when the bell rang because they did not understand that the school day continued past recess.
Gradually, they forgot their parents’ faces.
During the interviews, the adult children often expressed differing attitudes to the project’s aftermath. Some support their parents’ decision to abandon their children by reasoning that the end justifies the means. Others show bitterness, did not want to grow up sans private life and peace. One women admits, voice heavy with emotion, that she did not remember how it was to lose her family, despite her mother retelling her. The sadness of a lost memory replaced the sorrow of separation. The children who were reunited with their parents in Chile as adults, express jealousy of their parents’ new partners and children, who they do not feel part of.
The blended families of today. Parents tell of despair and self-blame over the decision to abandon their own children. The social parents on their side, explain the strong bonds forged with their allocated children, and the fear felt by the children felt as MIR-members returned from Chile with bad news about parents who were killed in the fight.
Proyecto Hogares was founded thanks to a Belgian solidarity organisation, which contributed a theoretical foundation and sourced houses. Through play, music, song and theatre, the children were to develop a connection to one another and their reserve-parents, and were taught how to express their experiences through art. The aim was to use devotion as an antidote during crises. But the founders anticipated problems: Sorrow over the separation, problems integrating, the uncertainty of whether the children would ever see their parents again, and not least the «dual belonging», because they now had two sets of parents.
It is easy to draw parallels to modern family structures, where divorces provide the foundation for new unions. Today’s children must accept separation from their parents and deal with bonus parents and siblings, which, to a certain degree, is comparable to the «social family» of the Chilean collective. The question remains the same: Does a higher goal justify a child’s loss of parental closeness? To the child, it matters little whether the end goal is defeating a dictatorship or the parents’ search for individual happiness. The end result remains the same.
Dissolving. Wisely enough, Macarena does not present any conclusions to this heavy dilemma, but the tone of the film emphasises the children’s yearning. The director’s sociable brother Gerardo has created a beautiful animation about the collective, which is intertwined into the documentary to illustrate the journey from idealism to despair.
The Utopian spirit of the Paris-period is personified by an angel dropping naked, sleeping babies through the soft opening of a roof on a building. When the children wake up, they joyfully discover that they have now got many new siblings and playmates.
In the last animated sequence, a boy is awoken by the walls around him melting. The boy wakes up a girl, and tries to get them out, but the building is melting so fast they have to fly out of an opening in the ceiling. The building sinks into the ocean, and the children disappear in different directions. There are no adults in sight.