Somehow, there hardly seems a more pertinent time for a wide U.S. release of Patricio Guzmán’s epochal “The Battle of Chile” (1975-78), a massive, three-part vérité documentary about the rise of Salvador Allende’s socialist government and its subsequent usurpation by the country’s American-backed military junta.
The title of Part 1 — “The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie” — says it all: imagine, if you can, the heaven-sent Bizarro-world where a people-power government is successfully installed, triumphantly wresting control of the starving nation’s major industries and resources from corporations and multinationals, and thereby precipitating an overt and covert insurrection led by the business owners and bankers and moneyed class.
You know a truly democratic, for-the-people policy is working if you enrage the wealthy, a rare situation that smacks, lightly, of what’s happening in this country at the moment, as Republicans and corporations have gone berserk trying to stop Obama from poking holes in the pockets of the health insurance industry. It resembles as well the Satanic makeover Hugo Chavez gets in the American media, for essentially pulling an Allende on the multinationals coveting Venezuelan oil.
But, of course, what happened in Chile could never happen here, as Guzmán’s scathing work demonstrates — this movie documents a degree of active engagement you hardly see anymore: entire city populations storming the streets time and time again, first students, then suited businessmen, then tanks and trucks full of banner-waving workers and singing crowds and, eventually, armed troops, firing at will. But when it does happen nowadays, as it did earlier this year in Iran, it’s shut down almost immediately, and we see precious little of it in any case. Controlling the media message is controlling everything, but because the right-wing coup in Chile was caught in the process of happening, there was no control at all.
In a broader sense, Guzmán was shooting his on-the-shoulder footage in a different day, on the final cusp of the Vietnam War protest era, when authorities public and private hadn’t yet learned exactly how vital disallowing on-location documentary filmmaking — or at least embedding it — was to their interests and their grip on power.
This freedom gives “Battle” an eye-scorching immediacy that docs just don’t have anymore, forced as they are lately to rely on library footage, interviews and news film already pressed through the censorship filters. Guzmán and his team were free to film, but of course they were also free to be shot on the spot (Part 1 ends, famously, with soldiers aiming directly at the lens filming them and shooting down the man behind the camera), and to be arrested, tortured and killed later by Pinochet’s death squads, which is how Guzmán’s main DP, Jorge Müller Silva, died.
Of course, Guzmán’s widely circulated film didn’t change anything anyway — Pinochet gained and retained control, history rolled forward without Allende, and the corpses of the disappeared accumulated in Chile. All of this is circumstantial in regards to “Battle,” and it ignores Guzmán’s achievement, which is not merely a fact of courage under fire, but of storytelling precision.
Over the course of almost five hours, the film scrupulously details every step in the political tangle, beginning with Allende’s successes and the business confederations’ subsequent strikes and embargoes, starving the country, to the final blitzing, on September 11, 1973, of the presidential palace, reducing it, Allende and the Chilean dream of social equity, to rubble.
That the CIA and the Pentagon were behind the insurrection may still be an arguable and semi-classified matter here, but virtually every laborer Guzmán meets on the streets of Santiago in 1973 says as much, in no uncertain terms. (“[O]f course the newspapers are bleeding because a pro-Communist government has been overthrown…” Kissinger was recorded telling Nixon in 1973, in conversations declassified in 2004 and easily found online, “I mean, instead of celebrating… In the Eisenhower period we would be heroes.”)
Co-produced by Chris Marker, Guzmán’s historic epic creates a storm in the belly, even today. In the brick-thick Icarus set, it’s accompanied by Guzmán’s 1997 doc “Chile, Obstinate Memory,” which plays as merely another brick in the edifice Guzmán has devoted his career to building, a monument to the catastrophe of Chilean political life in the last half of the 20th century. As with all vital documentaries, one can only dream of a world where they are viewed and acted upon by a conscientious public.