11 Documentaries on the Military Dictatorship in Chile

By 03 June, 2013

For anyone interested in learning more about the Pinochet years in Chile, there are a whole host of documentaries, spanning the early stages of the dictatorship to the modern day, which dissect and examine distinct aspects of the period and its ongoing legacy. Numerous filmmakers have produced works that alternate between the harrowing and the moving, or feature inspirational tales of resistance and endurance. Several have been widely lauded for the light they shed on the darkest chapter of Chilean history, and in some instances been recognised as important investigative documents. The beauty of the internet means that many of them are freely available online, offering a compelling opportunity to understand what military rule signified in the country, the realities of its imposition, and how Chilean society has adjusted to the restoration of democracy in 1990.

Here is a guide to eleven documentaries (ten of which provide fascinating viewing and one, well, less so) that you can watch for free online.

1.       El Tigre Saltó y Mató pero Morirá… Morirá (The Tiger Leapt and Killed but He Will Die… He Will Die) – Santiago Álvarez, 1973

Released just three months on from the 11th September 1973 military coup d’etat in which socialist president Salvador Allende died, this short film from Cuban director Santiago Álvarez was the first to address the situation in Chile, and also the first to outline the parallels between Pinochet’s armed forces and Nazism. Coming as it did so soon after the imposition of military rule, the film is widely heralded as setting the tone for several subsequent works. Álvarez also paid homage to murdered musician Victor Jara, soundtracking the folk singer’s music over violent images of the coup and its aftermath, and painting a stark contrast between the brutality of the military and Jara’s messages of peace and social justice.

2.       Diálogos de Exiliados (Dialogues of Exiles) – Raúl Ruiz, 1974

The grand director of Chilean cinema Raúl Ruiz, who died in 2011, was the first filmmaker to look at how Chileans adapted to life in other countries, using the case of exiles in France during the first full year of military rule. This docu-drama addressed the difficulties encountered by exiles as they sought to establish themselves in foreign lands, construct new lives, find work, and be accepted into new societies. However, the film caused some consternation at the time of its European release (as with all films critical of the dictatorship which were made while Pinochet remained in power, it was banned in Chile), largely due to what was felt to be an overly flippant tone coming so soon after the military coup. Ruiz, an exile himself, responded to criticisms by saying that he “was convinced that it was a militant film, a species of provision for all the errors which could be committed and which we would have to avoid”. When it was  finally released in Chile in 2000, the film received a much more positive reception for its examination of the eradication of rights and the regime’s imposition of a state of quasi-limbo upon so many of its citizens.

3.        La Batalla de Chile (The Battle of Chile) – Patricio Guzmán, 1975

The daddy of political documentary, Guzmán’s films have been hugely influential in tracing back the fault lines of the military regime and its highly repressive autocratic system. None has done this more so than The Battle of Chile, a remarkable trio of films that document different stages of the period. The first is La Insurreccíon de La Burguesía (The Insurrection of The Bourgeoisie), filmed in the chaotic final six months of Allende’s presidency, as an intense build-up of social tensions erupteed in the bloodshed of the coup. Part two, El Golpe de Estado (The Coup d’Etat), focuses on that fateful day in September, while the third part, El Poder Popular (Popular Power), looks at those who made up the overthrown government and its support. Made in exile in France, the films paint a remarkably vivid picture of events in Chile. With its retrospective look, there is a hauntingly prescient power to the work, the viewer’s historic knowledge fostering a high level of tension over the inevitable tragedy to come. The films look at distinct aspects of the time, from the rise of military revolt to the internal conflicts that undermined the political left, and bristle with seething injustice and deeply unsettling imagery: the Argentinean cameraman Leonardo Henrichsen recording his own death; Allende’s interior minister José Tohá facing the political crisis alongside General Carlos Prats and the general’s second-in-command, Augusto Pinochet, who would go on to play a massive role in both men’s deaths; and then there is the fact that Guzmán´s cameraman in La Insurrección de La Burguesía, Jorge Muller Silva, would become one of Chile’s disappeared after being detained by the military. The film is widely heralded as a vital piece of evidence in the formation of memory, and one of the truly groundbreaking political films of the 20th century, with the Spanish writer Manuel Vazquéz Montalbán echoing the views of many in 1977 when he said that ‘if it was in my hands, I would declare The Battle of Chile a film of democratic interest and I would oblige it to be used as school material. However, the Board of Cinematographic Qualification (in Spain) has declared it unsuitable for minors. From this film, one can only derive constructive teachings and arrive at informed conclusions which are at the root of the modern left.’

4.       Chile: Hasta Cuando? (Chile: When Will It End?) – David Bradbury, 1985

Australian journalist and director Bradbury’s film was a remarkable piece of investigative reportage, made undercover in Chile, which showed the social realities of the country at the height of the dictatorship, at a time when media in the country was massively controlled by the authorities. Bradbury and his three-man crew entered the country officially under the pretext of filming the Viña del Mar music festival and realised a film that shed light on the terrible abuses taking place in Chile under Pinochet. Taking great risks to highlight the situation, Bradbury spoke to both supporters and opponents of the regime, with the film taking its title from the grief-stricken laments of the wife of murdered professor José Manuel Parada, whose abduction and killing alongside Santiago Nattino and Manuel Guerrero Ceballos united millions of Chileans in horror and anguish. Bradbury follows Parada’s family as they seek answers and respite, while also allowing the regime’s supporters to have their say. Needless to say, their justifications are resolutely rebutted by the film’s content.

5.       Imagenes de Una Dictadura (Images of a Dictatorship) – Patricio Henríquez, 1999

The only scripted narrative comes from the odd piece of text explaining the context of certain sections of this deeply unsettling film, which was made by Henríquez from various newreels he shot on the streets of Santiago. The film is shocking in the extreme repression it portrays, with the military’s indiscriminate, almost casual, brutality plain to see as women are beaten in the street and funeral processions of regime victims are attacked with teargas. The sense of impunity which enveloped the security forces is starkly revealed in soldiers’ ambivalence at being openly captured on film as they assault members of the public. Comprised of footage recorded throughout the eighties, the film covers a similar period to Bradbury’s Chile: Hasta Cuando?, and emphasises how the philosophy of state violence was firmly enshrined in military rule.

6.       I Love Pinochet  – Marcela Said, 2001

To many people the name Augusto Pinochet is evocative of tyranny and oppression but Marcela Said’s extraordinary film looks at the other side of the coin, taking as its subject material the section of Chilean society for whom the general remains an admirable figure, the hero who liberated Chile from Marxism and brought economic prosperity to the country. Their admiration for Pinochet is suspect but resolute: there is no doubtfulness amongst the pinochetistas as their attitude towards the general is one of unwavering loyalty. At times their support manifests itself in fanaticism as the cult of Pinochet provokes an almost religious devotion amongst the most extreme. Said uses the backdrop of Pinochet’s 1998 arrest in London to examine the ‘pro’ sector, a surprisingly large section of the populace that was emphasised by the 44% who voted to continue under military rule in the 1988 plebiscite over the return to democracy. The director sets her stall out early in the film, offering a highly critical commentary of the regime, yet seeks to examine the factors behind the enduring strength of pinochetismo.  Her latest film to deal with the dictatorship was 2010’s El Mocito, which tells the tale of Jorgelino Vergara, who as a teenager worked in one of the regime’s most notorious detention centres, the Cuartel Simón Bolívar in Santiago (grimly named after South America’s great liberator), bringing food and drink to the prisoners, virtually all of whom would be executed by the security forces.

7.       Estadio Nacional (National Stadium) – Carmen Luz Parot, 2002

In the immediate days following the coup, the national football stadium in Santiago was converted into the country’s largest detention centre, as thousands of Chilean men and women were arrested and taken there, many of whom were tortured and killed. Reasons for detention ranged from association with the overthrown government, to membership of left-wing political parties or trade unions, to suspected leftist sympathies. The stadium became synonymous with the regime’s abuses and served as a physical metaphor for what was taking place in the country: a place of national celebration and unity now representing brutality and imprisonment. Parot’s film speaks to various people who were part of the proceedings at the stadium, from detainees to guards to family members who waited outside the stadium desperately hoping for news of their relatives.

8.       La Ciudad de Los Fotógrafos (The City of Photographers) – Sebastián Moreno, 2006

As much of the world turned a blind eye to events in Chile, and the media in the country was placed under heavy control, it was largely left to individuals to expose the human right abuses that were taking place under the military government. There are two main strands to the film, both of which look at the important role performed by photographers. The first is the case of the Hornos de Lonquén, in which the remains of Sergio Maureira and four of his sons were discovered in a mine shaft in southern Chile in 1978, five years after their detention. This was a defining event in the strengthening of resistance to Pinochet’s regime: the absence of bodies in so many cases meant that it was difficult to prove the murder of citizens by the authorities whereas now it could not be denied. Maureira’s wife, Purísima Muñoz, mother to their four murdered children, takes a central role in the documentary’s initial section to bring a personal perspective to this particular atrocity and to emphasise the human cost of military rule, not only among the dead but those they leave behind. The film’s second main theme follows the street photographers who documented what was happening in Santiago and other cities, creating a graphic memory of the social situation. Photographic records would prove invaluable when investigations into abuses where set up following the return to democracy in 1990.

9.       La Conspiración de Chicago (The Chicago Conspiracy) – Subversive Action Films, 2010

The film’s title comes from the implementation of Chicago School-inspired theories in post-coup Chile, opening up local markets to foreign imports and privatising national industry, thereby reversing key policies of the Allende administration. The film looks at the ongoing social effects of the dictatorship in Chile and how young people today interpret them and are affected by them. It addresses Chile’s gaping levels of inequality and asks what new generations can do to address this. The film also tells the tragic story of the Vergara brothers, Rafael and Eduardo, interviewing their parents and friends to highlight the social inferno that the brothers’ killing at the hands of carabineros in 1985 continues to provoke to this day. Every year on the anniversary of the death, 29th March, Santiago and other cities mark El Día del Joven Combatiente (The Day of The Young Combatant) with mass protests against the lack of justice for dictatorship crimes and authoritarian abuses which continue to this day.  Seething with righteous fury and featuring a snarling soundtrack of contemporary political hip hop, this is a highly provocative examination of how new generations observe the past and interpret it in modern forms of creative and popular expression.

10.   Nostalgia de La Luz (Nostalgia For The Light) – Patricio Guzmán, 2010

 Since he made The Battle of Chile back in the seventies, Guzmán has produced a grand body of work to address political themes in Chile, including In The Name of God (1987), The Pinochet Case (2001), and Salvador Allende (2004). But it was this masterwork which really brought the director a grand level of international recognition, showing that, more than thirty years after The Battle of Chile, his skill at presenting complex political themes in a universally accessible manner had in no way diminished. The hauntingly beautiful cinematography of this mesmeric film cuts a brutal contrast with the painful content. It begins by looking at the massive telescopes of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, as astronomers search the stars to develop understanding of our own existence. This scientific progress is juxtaposed with the state of purgatory in which several others conducting a separate search in the region find themselves. They are the mothers of disappeared victims of the regime searching for the remains of their missing loved ones, a virtually impossible task in the vast expanses of the desert. It is a documentary of immense power and visionary craft, an example of a supreme filmmaker at his very best.

11.   Pinochet – Ignacio Zegers, 2012

There was much controversy in Chile over the release of Zegers’ pro-Pinochet film, culminating in riots at the film’s Santiago premiere as protestors clashed with attendees.  The film purports to repaint the Pinochet landscape and reclaim the general’s name as a force for good and social change. Aside from its highly dubious agenda, as a piece of documentary cinema it could be critically dissected by the freshest of film students. Not one reliably objective commentator is featured, while actors are used to portray cross-generational lessons in pinochetista heroism. There is zero political analysis of the pre-dictatorship period and the film eschews legitimate questions of some of the previous government’s policies in favour of hyperbole and unashamedly heavy-handed propaganda. Throw in a voiceover narration that makes Megatron from Transformers sound like Michael Jackson and you have possibly one of the worst, and undoubtedly one of the most morally repugnant, documentaries of recent times. It would be laughable if it wasn’t for the scary fact that there are large numbers of people who go in for this sort of thing.

The films listed here are just some of the many cinematic works to address themes related to the dictatorship in Chile. You can find a more extensive list of documentaries and dramatic films here.

And follow the links for previous Sounds and Colours articles on The Battle of Chile; The City of Photographers; and Nostalgia for Ther Light.

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