Interview with Patricio Guzmán, filmmaker of memory

Apr 16, 2013 Comments Off on Interview with Patricio Guzmán, filmmaker of memory by

By Marilyne Buda, translated by Jessica Sequeira


Born in Chile in 1941, Patricio Guzmán chose the documentary very early on as his mode of expression. A fervent witness to the period of Popular Unity, a coup d’état on 11 September 1973 forced him to leave his country after a brief imprisonment. Since then, he has dedicated his life to his main goal: to deepen understanding of the dictatorship, in order to recover the historical truth.


Ventana Latina: Patricio, why were you drawn to the documentary?

Patricio Guzmán: In the ’50s and ’60s I happened to see a number of documentaries in Chile that I liked a lot and that convinced me to dedicate myself to the form, such as America as Seen by a Frenchman by François Reichenbach, To Die in Madrid by Frédéric Rossif, and Mein Kampf by Erwin Leiser, as well as lighter films like The Silent World by Captain [Jacques-Yves] Cousteau. I thought that this kind of cinema, which had characters drawn from real life instead of actors, was what best suited my personality and my desires, and I’ve never left the documentary form since then. I studied in Santiago first, then at the Official School of Cinematography in Madrid.

VL: What is the difference between documentary and fiction?, between documentary and journalism?

PG: The documentary differs from fiction because it tells a true story, using materials found in reality. The difference between the director-driven documentary and the news report has to do with the element of time: with journalism, one has to look for rapid and practical solutions, and to ask direct questions. With the documentary, there is more time to develop the idea, more time to shoot, and therefore more possibilities for the use of metaphors, allegories, and symbols. Sometimes it can take years to make a documentary. This makes room for some ‘creative cooking’ in addition to the pure search for information, and enables one to really get at the root of a problem. But there can be great reporting and bad documentaries; it all depends on the person holding the camera.

VL: Your best known works take the Pinochet dictatorship as their theme. Where did the need to talk about this period of history come from?

PG: I lived the moment of Popular Unity in Chile intensely, and it seemed to me an extraordinary moment, with a huge connection between the people and Allende. There was great confidence in his government and unprecedented citizen participation. Above all, I saw a concept appear that had not existed before then, that of solidarity among the people. That social movement was crushed in an unjust and totally unfair way, because the popular mass had no weapons, and on it fell a very well prepared army that made pieces not only of the social movement but also of the apparatus of the Chilean state itself, which had taken 200 years to build. The outrage that I felt has marked me forever. I have tried to delve into that moment, to explore all the aspects of this abuse of an army against its people. The fact that this is also a universal theme gives me a great deal of strength to continue.

VL: Would you say that your cinema is activist?

PG: It really makes no difference to me what I call it. There are people who get worried when they’re talked about as ‘activists’ because it seems to them a pejorative word; instead they say that their cinema is critical, a form of social analysis, subversive… What interests me most is not whether they call me an activist or not, but whether my film pleases me and is well received by the public.

VL: On that note, how do Chileans receive your films?

PG: In Chile there is an important problem: the distribution of documentary films is very bad, because Chilean television, while technically excellent, is completely commercial and doesn’t air documentaries. Instead of a large-scale distributor, the majority of documentaries have a partial, amateur, or alternative distribution, which can be interesting but isn’t sufficient. Salvador Allende was my only film with good marketing and screenings in fifteen cinemas; it drew 65,000 viewers. In contrast, Nostalgia for the Light had only 10,000 viewers in Chile, whereas in France it had 70,000.

VL: Can one talk about the Pinochet period more easily in Chile today?

PG: With difficulty. The power of the publishing industry, television channels, and the press is in the hands of the right, which has no interest in remembering because it doesn’t want to talk about what it did. The newspaper El Mercurio, for example, denied the disappearance of people and the torture, and gave its support to Pinochet. Today no means of communication on the left or centre exists that has real importance. There are a few islands, people in small organisations, NGOs, and individual neighbourhoods that make an effort to remember. The student movement makes demands for memory, and the figure of Allende still has some symbolic power. But as [Chilean filmmaker] Pablo Larraín said, ‘Chile is built on a wound,’ and a great many people live in the air without ever touching it.

VL: What does the word memory evoke for you?

PG: I think that memory is a very practical concept, not just something talked about in classrooms or philosophy books. It is a right that modern society has acquired: a country that cultivates a good memory has better business deals, better tourism, better cinema, and better international relations because of it. Memory can achieve all of this, makes it possible for a country to improve. It is an immediate collective practice, as concrete as a brick, a shoe.

VL: What do you think of the way Latin American countries confront their past?

PG: The great example was given by Kirchner. Argentina put those responsible for its dictatorship in jail and created a real campus of memory on the site of the ex-Navy School of Mechanics. In Chile, one has come to the point where 40 percent of cases involving human rights violations have been judged, but that still leaves 60 percent, which is a lot, considering that twenty years of transition have passed. If one asks why Chilean justice has been so slow, one arrives at the conclusion that there is no real political will. Up to now no president has had this will; let us hope that the next one does. Right now, Uruguay is very bad in this respect, and Brazil and Guatemala are worse still. But one has to carry on. Memory is a theme for the long term, and one advances very slowly. I think that the coup d’état will continue to be a burden for another one hundred years in Chile, and that The Battle of Chile will be shown on a large scale only when everyone involved is long dead.

VL: What place does the theme of dictatorship have in current Chilean art?

PG: Many people are working on it, among them new historians revising their views of the Allende and Pinochet period, and rewriting a great part of the national history. There are theatre companies that stage works on memory, such as those of Alfredo Castro and Guillermo Calderón. And there are also various documentary filmmakers passionate about the theme, apart from me.

VL: You’ve lived outside Chile for a while…

PG: Yes. I am 71 years old, and have lived more time outside of Chile than within it. This causes me no special worry. I believe that each one of us carries a rucksack, and that into that rucksack, which always remains close to your body, goes the most important memories of your life. What you carry within it never disappears, even if you live in another country. You just keep adding new identities to it. I have lived in four countries—Chile, Cuba, Spain, and France—but the first is the one which marks me most, and which I will never forget. I left because I had to, in order to make and disseminate my film The Battle of Chile, to tell the story of what happened.

VL: When did you leave?

PG: I left at the end of 1973. I ordered a run of the mill passport and they gave it to me, despite the fact that for two weeks I had been in the National Stadium [used as a prison camp by the Chilean military regime following the 1973 coup d’état]. At the start of the dictatorship the National Stadium and the passport office were not connected, and as far as the latter knew I had no criminal record. I was in the stadium two weeks, and was very lucky because they released me when it reached full capacity. They let out the people they considered less important. The rest were sent to Chacabuco in the north, or killed.

VL: Why did they arrest you?

PG: I was never an activist in any party. They arrested me because of a denunciation, one of the most sinister elements of the dictatorships. In those days I had very long hair and a really big beard, as did my friends also working on The Battle of Chile, whom I would meet up with at my house. The woman who lived on the floor above me denounced us. The police took all my films, but I had hidden the material for The Battle of Chile, so they never knew what I was working on.

VL: Thank you very much, Patricio. One last question: are you working on any new projects?

PG: Yes. For the first time in thirty years, the Chilean National Council of Culture and the Arts gave a grant. The National Institute for French Cinema gave me one as well. I am going to make a film about the water in the south of Chile, where the biggest archipelago in the world is located. I will film next summer in Chile, and take another year to assemble the scenes. It will be some time before the film is in cinemas, but I am very happy.




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