Two Worlds Collide

Issue section: 

Mike Gonzalez speaks to Chilean director Andres Wood.

Sometimes the truth about historic events is told best by those who make no attempt to understand their meaning but simply live them out. That's the case with the two young boys and the teenage girl at the heart of Andres Wood's moving film Machuca. Machuca is a kid from the slums (the poblaciones) of Santiago, Silvana his slightly older friend. Gonzalo is the child of a wealthy middle class family. They meet because the head of Gonzalo's very exclusive private school decides, under the influence of liberation theology, to open the gates to some youngsters from the other side of the tracks.

It is a harsh and dramatic introduction, for both boys, to the realities of class. The playground fights and trading of insults would happen anywhere - but this is not anywhere. It is Chile 1973, and the mounting tension in the streets anticipates the military regime to come.

Wood described his film to me at the Edinburgh Film Festival where it was given its first British showing:

'The film takes place at the end of the Allende period and the beginnings of the dictatorship. It's based on my own experience. The headteacher comes from a progressive church that has disappeared now.

'I was seven at the time of these events, so it's a fiction born out of my experience but it's bigger than that. I don't remember much but what I do know is that although Chile is richer now it's a country where there is almost no contact between classes. So it's really a film about class rather than politics.'

It is also about the disturbing, violent way in which class conflict erupts into the lives of these three friends at the same time as other awakenings. In a very tender scene, for example, the kids open a tin of condensed milk that Gonzalo has been sent to buy - in the world of the other two, this is an extraordinary luxury. As he licks the milk from the girl's lips, the young boy from the rich suburb experiences an innocent, startling, erotic moment. Yet even that very quickly degenerates into a battle between two socially separated kids.

In the film's most powerful moment, Gonzalo wanders into the slum district where his friend Machuca lives just as the army occupies it, killing and injuring the residents, before destroying the whole area. The scene reproduces the events at Santiago's Lo Hermida district in August 1973.

According to Wood it was this section of the film that had the greatest impact. But the reality is that, while international distribution has been very slow, Machuca is winning plaudits and prizes at one film festival after another. And in Chile the response of audiences has been emotional and angry. In part that is because this is the first film which has tried to convey the lived experience - the anxiety, the confusion, the distress - of this intensifying class war that ended in the overthrow of Salvador Allende's government and the rise to power of Augusto Pinochet.

'Most film-makers went into exile and spoke from there. I am a great admirer of people like Pato Guzman, who made The Battle of Chile. But we didn't see these films until the 1980s, and even then in secret. This is my third film - but this is the first time there has been a film about this topic. It's had a real powerful impact in Chile - which surprised me. I think we all wanted to go back and re-examine that time but no one could find the form. I found my way to look at all that through the eyes of children who aren't heroes nor martyrs to the cause.'

After the coup, Gonzalo returns to his bourgeois world and to his mother's new extravagant house that she shares with her lover. Machuca disappears into the shadows. In the new Chile of torture and the free market, class reimposes itself with a maximum of violence.

Wood himself is part of a generation that had to find ways to revisit and rediscover the past. For those still younger than him, that carefully recreated world is not just history - it is a representation of a past hope that can, perhaps, inspire a very different future.

'Neither the right nor the left seems very prepared to go back and look at their own mistakes. But the reaction of young people has been extraordinary. They read the film as I hoped they would - as a revision of the past so that we can continue into the future.'

Directed by Andres Wood