‘Memory Is An Intimate Feeling That Permeates Everything You Do’: 50 Years of Revolutionary Hope and Memory in Patricio Guzmán’s Cinema

By 11 September, 2023

Patricio Guzmán, the acclaimed Chilean documentarian and 2019 Cannes Golden Eye Award-winner, has recently released a series with Icarus Films commemorating the 50th anniversary of the coup in Chile, titled ‘Dreaming of Utopia: 50 Years of Revolutionary Hope and Memory’.

This series includes screenings of new 4K restorations of his films The First Year and The Battle of Chile, as well as special screenings of his recent films like Nostalgia for the Light, The Pearl Button, The Cordillera of Dreams and My Imaginary Country. The screenings began on Friday, September 8 at Anthology Film Archives, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the IFC Center in New York City.

Sounds & Colours caught up with Guzmán to gain some insights and reflections on his work: 

S&C: In The Cordillera of Dreams, you say that your entire career as a filmmaker has been conducted outside of Chile, and yet, your entire career has Chile as its protagonist. How has exile influenced your artistic work? Why do you speak so much about the ‘strangeness’ that returning to Chile occasionally provokes in you? In what sense is Chile a foreign country to you?

Patricio Guzmán: Well, interpreting exile in an artistic work demands a lot. Exile not only means leaving one’s home country but also getting used to living in another country. Chile is a particularly isolated country. People in Chile don’t have much experience of travelling. However, from the moment I started making films, I had the impression that films needed to appeal to others, to other countries. Cinema should always be conceived in this way, not in a closed manner. Chile is an enclosure, it’s a beautiful country that I love very much from the perspective of everyday life, but it’s a closed, isolated country. It’s a strange situation because on one side, there’s the Andes, which is an immense mountain range. And on the other side, there’s the ocean, which is truly enormous. The Chilean coast faces the widest expanse of ocean on Earth. So, for all these obvious reasons, Chile is a foreign country to me.

S&C: One of your strategies for addressing the issue of dictatorship is through dialogue with natural elements like the Cordillera, the desert and the sea – which are overwhelming, desolate landscapes. How do these imposing spaces transform into metaphors of hope? How did these ideas for your documentaries come about?

PG: It’s an easy problem to solve because Chile has the Andes on one side, which is a long mountain range, thousands of kilometres long, and on the other side, there’s the ocean, which is also the largest ocean on Earth. And to the north, there’s an enormous desert that is flat, dry, where absolutely nothing grows, but it constitutes a martian landscape. And on the other side, there are the ice floes of the south, which are a difficult barrier to reach in Antarctica. I like these spaces.

S&C: In My Imaginary Country, a new facet of your work appears. Beyond the exercise of memory done in this film, as in your previous films, the possibility of change is raised, of finding a way out of old institutions and, above all, the lingering remnants of the coup that still influence much of Chilean politics. How would the Chile you dream of be for you, the one you imagined in the 1970s?

PG: From a physical perspective, there are some changes I would like to make: there are too many buildings in narrow places. The cost of living is too high. It’s enormous; impossible for a normal middle class. There’s an unbearable class of rich people. They are neither cultured nor civilised nor humane. What else? I would like it to be like it was in the 1940s, perhaps a tremendously provincial, backward country, but one that had an appropriate horizon. There were better trains than in other places. There were roads. In short, in a country where there were many things to do. But what needed to be worked on was not plastic, but concrete issues, working with the earth.

S&C: How much catharsis is there in your documentary work, and why do you consider this exercise of memory necessary even more than 30 years after the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship?

PG: Because memory is not a casual exercise. It’s not a form of dialogue. It’s more of an intimate feeling that permeates everything you do. When I was making The Battle of Chile, I completely identified with the whole process that was taking place, which was a spectacular, broad, cross-class process that manifested itself everywhere and in every place. And Allende, the leader of that huge ship that was beginning to leave the port. In that sense, I didn’t worry too much about creating intimacy, mythification, or emphasis in the story. The important thing was to tell what was happening in the broadest and most beautiful way possible. The Battle of Chile period was one of the happiest moments for the people of Chile, at least in its first year and a half. Then, as always happens, mediocrity and lack of vision came in. Fear made the dictatorship of such an uncultured person as Pinochet possible, and he swept everything away. But now, Chile is sailing through the cold water of the Pacific to rise again. 

‘Dreaming of Utopia: 50 Years of Revolutionary Hope and Memory’ includes one-week theatrical runs of new 4K restorations of Patricio Guzmán’s The First Year and The Battle of Chile, and special screenings of Guzman’s recent films like Nostalgia for the Light, The Pearl Button, The Cordillera of Dreams and My Imaginary Country. Starting on Friday, September 8 at Anthology Film Archives, Brooklyn Academy of Music and the IFC Center in New York City. More info here.

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