The Battle of Chile

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Director Patricio Guzmán, Release date: out now

The Battle of Chile is a masterpiece of political documentary, yet until recently it has been almost impossible to get a copy of it. Its release for the first time on DVD is therefore to be warmly welcomed.

Filmed from early 1973 in Chile, the documentary captures a powerful workers' movement beginning to threaten the very existence of capitalist society. In 1970 the workers elected Allende, a self-proclaimed Marxist president who balanced precariously between working class support and the right who he wished to appease. His strategy, supported by the Communist Party, was declared the "Chilean road to socialism" within the boundaries of bourgeois law and institutions.

On 11 September 1973 the limits of this strategy were brutally illustrated when a military coup overthrew the elected government and the ruling class took their revenge, systematically rooting out the memory of working class resistance for years to come.

There was, however, nothing inevitable about this outcome and The Battle of Chile is strong proof of this, beautifully bringing to life in human form the debates, tension and excitement surrounding the final months of the "Chilean experiment". A fragmented montage of archival remnants, brought together by a narrative of struggle and defeat, creates a fascinating education drawn directly from the heat of the struggle.

Through this three-part documentary a framework is constructed to understand the scenes, but it never feels forced onto us or takes over from the film's aesthetic beauty. This is exemplified in a scene filmed inside the cordones (a new form of workers' self-organisation based within the factories). A factory has just been taken over by the workers, and we watch as a union official explains to them that there are real problems with these occupations. Change must come gradually, the union official argues.

There is a brilliant debate in which the worker who gets the loudest cheer passionately demands that the occupations continue at a greater pace, that they challenge the bureaucracy within their class and that the Allende government starts to put faith in workers' power instead of fearing it. The union official responds and we are left as viewers to debate among ourselves the correct political strategy.

Even so, director Patricio Guzmán does not hide from taking sides. An Argentinian journalist films the attempted coup in June, a failed military attack. A soldier turns and faces the screen, lifts up his gun and shoots directly towards us. The cameraman is shot and the screen falls to the ground as we watch him film his own death. The narrator tells us that the cameraman has recorded, two months before the final coup, the true face of the Chilean army. It is also a tragic reminder that politics is inescapable in any understanding of the creation of The Battle of Chile.

Long banned in Chile after the coup, only in 1997 could Guzmán return to show The Battle of Chile for the first time. This return is filmed in Chile, Obstinate Memory, an addition to the DVD set, which documents viewers' reactions to the showing.

Chile was under repressive dictatorship for 17 years, and much of the history recorded within The Battle of Chile has been completely removed from a national collective memory and it is moving to watch Chileans rediscovering their history. Even within liberal democracy it is fashionable to explain the Chilean coup as an inevitable CIA conspiracy against a noble, yet powerless, Allende. Instead, The Battle of Chile shows a hidden history of workers in struggle and allows us to draw important lessons from their catastrophic defeat.