Tessaloniki’s Greek International Documentary Film Festival in March provided an opportunity to see the significance of actual memories, through the eyes of three directors.
The festival showed a large Patrico Guzmans retrospective featuring the exiled Chilean’s films. If anyone can be said to have taken care of a nation’s recollection, it would be him. At the start of the 1970s, he documented President Salvatore Allende’s political life in Chile. Guzman’s independent film team followed the development through to Pinochet’s September 11 coup in 1973. The many rolls of film were then smuggled out of the newly established dictatorship, via Swedish diplomacy post and boat from Valparaiso, picked up from Sweden, and later edited in Cuba where Guzman spent the next six years working on the film. This resulting trilogy The Battle of Chile (1975–79), is one of film history’s classics on par with Shoah by Claude Lanzmann.
In Tessaloniki, the older Guzman points out that the memory is vital. A nation’s communal recollection shapes its expectations. The dialogue between past and presence is typical of his film work. Regardless of, in this case Chile, the horrendous pain the traumatised successors may find speaking about the terrors and tragedies of the past, does Guzman feels that getting the truth out could give hope and inspiration to necessary societal changes.
Swearing on Pinochet’s textbook. In Chile, however, many disagree with him. They have no desire to go digging up the past. In Guzman’s The Pinochet Case (2001), we meet a younger woman who see no reason to ask her mother about the torture she was subjected to during the dictatorship – she does not want to know. As some of Guzman’s other films show – Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997) and Chile, a Galaxy of Problems (2010) – most people prefer to forget. Even Allende’s widow, Hortensia Bussi, in 1987, explains that she is trying to forget, in self-defence. She knows that it will only make things more painful for her, and even if she had wanted to delve deeper into the memories, how could she? In 1973, all of Allende’s family possessions were confiscated, and only following the fall of the Pinochet regime, was a proper funeral arranged. Bussi has no albums nor any beloved possessions to pass on to the family.
But, as we see Guzman, in these films, show some students in Santiago the old The Battle of Chile, it is evident that the next generation feels betrayed by the incumbent government. It is heart breaking to watch the youngsters cry after the screening – they describe their homeland as barbaric and deceitful. But, the authorities have done their best to forget about the Allende-era and its tragic demise. After 17 years of Pinochet, Chile experienced a long period of neoliberalism and extended open invitations to foreign capital. In the school textbooks, Allende and the Unidad Popular party barely get a mention. Only recently is Guzman’s classic The Battle of Chile screened on a small Chilean TV-channel with a couple of thousand viewers. The national DVD distributor declined it at first, describing it as “too politically sensitive”, but later decided to sell it.
At least, in the end, a statue of Allende was erected outside Santiago’s Moneda presidential palace. However, the political-military ideology still prevails. Allende’s notion about a fair society contrasts deeply with the fascist song played at today’s annual military parade, as it closes the Galaxy-film; with young soldiers singing a hymn about imposing the law of the winner. As witnessed in Guzman’s films, the winners form the nation’s recollection. Today, Chilean soldiers often wear Swastikas and Nazi helmets. The military academy students still swear on Pinochet’s 1968 geopolitical textbook – published when Pinochet lectured there.
The people supported Allende. The Spanish word recordar means to reminiscence, from the Latin meaning «back to the heart». In English, record also means to document something, register, witness, past, reputation and list of misdemeanours. In Guzman’s final film, Nostalgia for the Light (2010), he trails, in the Atacama Desert at 3,000 meter altitude, some of the loved ones looking for the mass graves from the Pinochet-period. A desert containing archaeological layers featuring hundreds of years of human history, extinct villages and animal species, mining activities and obliterated thoroughfares – and many of the murdered 2,000 Allende supporters. Guzman himself insists that Chile has to recognise the visionary era of Allende and admit what happened.
But, what really is the significance of remembering? What are we supposed to recall? Anyone who watches his films will at least see what a role model Allende was. He was violently overthrown, but fought and, in the end, fell, because he insisted on reform through democratic means. He was not heading a violent revolution, despite parts of Unidad Popular wanting to. These frequently asked for weapons to help protect his government. His friend Fidel Castro also had weapons ready for Allende. But no, Allende believed in democratic means. He enjoyed huge support from the people, sometimes half a million of them could be demonstrating in the Santiago streets in support of his politics.
The four and a half hour long trilogy also reminds us how far some are willing to go. The US’ Nixon and Kissinger wanted to crush the democratically elected Allende and his communism. Enormous amounts of money were sent over to break the bastard as Kissinger called him, “That son of a bitch”. The US paid four dollars per day to all Chilean transport workers for them to ‘strike’, to make the country grind to a halt. The Battle of Chile shows enormous areas of parked buses and lorries. Despite this, Henry and Richard of the USA, and the Chilean middle class, did not receive enough support to get rid of Allende. So, they decided to mobilise in the background. Allende’s alliances with certain generals weakened. At the end of Guzman’s film, his camera team zooms in on fighter jets shooting at the presidential palace and causing it to burn on September 11, 1973. Immediately before, they film Allende wearing a helmet speaking to the people from his office via the radio: “I am ready to repay the people’s loyalty with my life.” Allende was twice offered a free pass out of the country, but refused to give up. He was shot, or committed suicide, as they exited the building following pleas for a cease fire. A witness in the film saw him lying down, his head shattered.
It is understandable that the military junta did not really want a resistance fight fuelled by an exiled Allende. In Guzman’s film, later on in the evening, the junta, headed by Pinochet, stated on TV that the military actions were necessitated solely due to patriotic concerns. That they had a Parliamentary mandate to save Chile from enormous chaos. Three years of ‘Marxist power’ was enough. They falsely claimed to have the majority of the people behind them in acting on behalf of the country’s divine interest.
They murdered the President and his movement, the very same Allende who the previous year was met with standing ovation at the UN General Assembly. As we are shown in the film, at the UN he criticised the US’ politics, he envisaged how future multi-national companies would dominate developing countries, and how new and powerful political-military alliances would be made. As the good orator he was, he concluded that the humanistic values would never be destroyed. Like the UN’s Hammarskjöld, he was killed by those he loudly criticised.
Criticising powerful business interests does not go unpunished. During Allende, national resources such as copper, cement and natural commodities helped get people back on on their feet. The self-organising was enormous, the workers got the industry going when the owners disappeared. Lives for the poor were improved. Not even the aforementioned US-supported ‘strike’ paralysed the country, as the people themselves organised transportation and food distribution. The people were behind Allende.
Self-therapy? The winning entry, as chosen by the Tessaloniki jury, also featured remembrance as a theme, although on a more personal level. Mexican Diego Gutiérrez’s Part of a Family (2013) features his parents looking back on their lives. Displaying a great trust in their son, they speak candidly about life, they no longer love each other but continue to live together. Their happiness is over, despite servants and riches. His mother considered leaving several times, and seems quite bitter as she is sitting in her pink robe spending the morning reading newspaper ads. Gutiérrez’s father gazes out of the window towards the landscaped lawn. When asked how he would like to die, he answers that it has to happen as he looks out at the garden as it reminds him of a happy childhood. During one of the film’s more painful moments, his mother says that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to operate, the husband was comforted by the fact that the breasts had never been much to write home about anyway.
Like Guzman, Gutiérrez cross-edits using old video recordings, memories from the mother’s blissful youth, the beach, meals filled with laughter, of the once beautiful woman now with a bitter face – video clips which remained just that – memories.
During a chat in Tessaloniki, Gutiérrez himself remembers that his own childhood was not particularly happy – his mother always overprotective about potential dangers outside of the home. Diego, now living in Amsterdam with his own family, is marred by his past – just like the Paris-residing Guzman. To which degree do these types of documentaries function as self-therapy for the director? At a seminar, Gutiérrez explains that the reason he made this film, was because he always felt lonely. At least when filming a documentary, he gets to meet people.
The too real. In Tessaloniki, I am handed a third film by a Greek producer featuring a similar topic. The documentary Amnesia Diaries (2012) shows old video clips from director Stella Theodorakis’ youth (1985 – 86). Her old Super 8 camera uses oxidised colours and faded faces. Beautiful old images. Theodorakis, in line with Guzman and Gutiérrez, cross-edits these with shots of urban Athens of today, with mass demos and desperate people discussing. Past and presence pitted against each other. The recollection work is amplified as she clears out the belongings of a recently deceased friend’s flat. In one way, it is the loss of the time of innocence edited against today’s crisis-hit Greece. Akin to Guzman’s Chile, or Gutiérrez’s Mexico childhood, the current situation is intolerable, whether political cynicism, emotional bitterness or financial chaos. The films, at least, provide us with signs of a lost time.
We hear Theodorakis adding her own reflections whilst flicking through the vintage material. Have not all the directors mentioned – like we the spectators – a need to see themselves in perspective, to understand our own changing identities? In the words of Aristotle: It is all about how you live this life.
Allow me to finish with yet another superb documentary, Stories We Tell by Canadian Sarah Polley. The foreword, as read by Sarah’s dad, asks whether life is just a series of events, which only become memories when we formulate them as stories to ourselves or others? Sarah asks this again towards the end as she reflects – like the aforementioned Theodorakis – on what story the recollection brings forth, how these stories create our self-awareness. However, in Polley’s film, this is taken to an extreme, the story is accentuated to such a degree, with the use of actors, which her father also was, that the memories by we serve ourselves are really tested.
Whether we are enriched by being retrospective, is a big question, whether it indeed is the wonder cure Freud once promised. Guzman stated, when I asked him in Tessaloniki, that the truth seems cleansing; you can clear up the traumas that haunt you in your subconscious chambers. My own answer is that sometimes reality is too authentic, or too ‘true.’ We all need some kind of interpretations, stories or rewrites to handle that which is too, heart breaking, real.