“My Imaginary Country” tracks Chile’s macro-social revolution through its recent years of unrest

Acclaimed documentarian Patricio Guzmán’s latest film premieres at UW Cinematheque on February 10.
Protesters wave a hole-riddled flag of Chile and climb atop a graffiti-covered statue of 19th-century general Manuel Baquedano.
Protesters wave a hole-riddled flag of Chile and climb atop a graffiti-covered statue of 19th-century general Manuel Baquedano.

Acclaimed documentarian Patricio Guzmán’s latest film premieres at UW Cinematheque on February 10.

As reflective as it can be, documentarian Patricio Guzmán’s low-to-the-ground approach to his work is always immediately concerned with the welfare of the Chilean people. Over his storied career that dates back to the late 1960s, this focus has increasingly balanced the physical with the metaphysical, culminating in My Imaginary Country (2022). The film finds a Madison premiere this week, on Friday, February 10 at 7 p.m., as part of UW Cinematheque’s annual LACIS Festival de Cine. Guzmán’s underseen work is now finding new audiences in the U.S., but to grasp this new film is to understand it as just the most recent piece of a career-spanning project of recording revolution. 

Guzmán’s earliest endeavors, including the three Battle Of Chile films from 1975 to 1979, remain some of his most trenchant and historically important work, if only for their status as primary documents of a tumultuous period in the country’s history. They track the democratic election of the socialist Salvador Allende in 1970, the ensuing popular movements of support for him, as well as the increasing congressional and military action against him.

The first of these ends with some of the most chilling nonfiction footage of its time, appropriated from Argentine journalist Leonardo Henrichsen, who was shot and killed by Chilean military while filming a street skirmish. The viewer sees the officer point the gun at the camera directly before the frame turns skyward, and the camera falls from Henrichsen’s hand. While the second part doesn’t have quite the same terrifyingly direct material, its subject is even more dire: Guzmán’s footage captures, in real-time, both of the CIA-backed military coups (the first was unsuccessful) that ousted Allende from power and led to his rather suspect death by “suicide” in 1973. 

After his imprisonment and exile in the wake of the coup, Guzmán’s return to Chile in 1990 and birthed the companion film Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997), which laid a blueprint for the rest of his career. In the film, he shows The Battle Of Chile in his home country, often to younger generations whose ideas of Pinochet’s dictatorship were shaped by right-wing propaganda. Results are thus mixed, with some sympathizers bursting into tears at the loss of so many radicals, while others argue that the documentaries highlight exactly the kind of social dysfunction the regime needed to correct. While the film still deals with the collision of political ideas, it takes a more reflective tone, asking what role these films and a filmmaker like Guzmán might have in Chile’s future. They show historical memory as something concrete, embodied among those who were there, but also aspirational as revolutionaries try to hold on to the dreams of the past. 

Per its title, My Imaginary Country shares this same interest 25 years later. Although the Pinochet regime has receded further into the past, present-day Chileans are still engaged in widespread social action, including—but not limited to—a coordinated fare-evasion movement in 2019 when the government raised subway fare by 30 pesos. The film’s subjects treat this as a sort of ground zero of a number of interrelated movements since then. One of these movements’ clearest victories was an overwhelming vote in support of establishing a committee to draft a new Constitution to replace the one written during the dictatorship. This document has, sadly, been rejected since the film’s completion.

Cumulatively, the movements aspire to what one subject terms a “macro-social” change to wipe out all forms of inequality. Thus, the film is less focused than Guzmán’s earlier work, as it doesn’t track one exact project but a general ethos of unrest. This allows Guzmán to interview and edit more lyrically, observing specific political ideas but also bigger ones about the soul of the country and its potential for change.

Feminist protesters demonstrate outside the National Stadium in Santiago wearing blindfolds in support of those blinded by police.
Feminist protesters demonstrate outside the National Stadium in Santiago. They wear blindfolds in support of those blinded by police.

As in his early films, here Guzmán highlights cameras as a liberatory technology. No longer needing to stash film reels, Chileans are now armed with cameras on their phones to capture and disseminate necessary images. However, that mostly means police have simply shifted tactics of suppression. In particular, cops blind protesters with tear gas and rubber so often that images of the injuries have become rallying documents for the movement. Sure, modern protesters aren’t being “disappeared” en masse like they were under Pinochet, but this violence is still unconscionably evil. If they can’t keep images from getting out, police know their next best option is to make people physically unable to see them. This is also a common tactic in the U.S., as Tone Madison has previously reported.

As Guzmán’s interview with photographer Nicole Kramm (herself blind in one eye) shows, this type of violence only increases the urgency of the images. And Guzmán himself certainly hasn’t lost his touch for shots equally poetic and upsetting. A tracking shot via drone late in My Imaginary Country follows a riot van as it drives into the sunset for almost a half-mile, emitting a constant spray of tear gas to passersby as they hurl rocks and bricks at it. The farther it goes, the more each side’s persistence is revealed. For as long as police resources exist to squash revolt, more people will appear to take up the cause.

Now in his 80s, Guzmán has a less immediate relationship with this modern social movement, but he’s no less admiring. His distance prioritizes the voices of young activists as he reflects on them from a sort of elder-statesman remove. His presence serves to demonstrate that, if Chile does have some innate and unchangeable quality, it’s this capacity to believe in change and to live in an “imaginary” state.

To some extent, revolutionaries always dwell in an imaginary version of their country, and their hope for what could be drives community action to make it a reality. More than anyone, Guzmán knows that utopian ideals are very much not reality, but he seems more excited than resigned about this endless historical cycle for change. As he passes the baton to a new generation, he seems finally at peace, recognizing revolution as a state of being more than a destination.

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