Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

Salvador Allende

by Patricio Guzmán, Director
First Run/Icarus Films, Brooklyn, NY, 2006
VHS / DVD $440 100 mins., col., b/w
Sales: $440; rental: VHS, $150
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Mike Leggett
University of Technology Sydney

A magical image opens the film, as a rock is used to chip away slowly at the thick paint covering a wall. Beneath the covering, the resplendent colours of wall murals made in the 60s and 70s by artists working for democratic change in Chile. Salvador Allende was the leftist president of the Latin American country elected to power in 1970 as leader of the Chile Popular Unity party. He died three years later in a military coup aided and encouraged by the CIA, an act that was an extension of the Cold War and the USA’s determination to maintain economic and political control over Latin America. Patricio Guzmán, a Chilean citizen film-maker, smuggled film out of the country shortly after the military coup. Salvador Allende is a collage of much of this material together with revealing contemporary interviews with some of those involved in the events. It includes a brief encounter with Allende’s personal secretary, La Payita. Guzmán remarks on the period, ambiguously——"The greatest love story…." She replies——"Historically speaking you see it that way, because you were one of us…."

This reviewer encountered several of the refugees in Britain as they fled Chile, gathering their stories on the recently available popular recording format of the period, the video Portapak. The same technology gathered statements and the conversations in various formats for film and television companies around the world and these emerge from archives to retell the story. But the core of the production is material shot by Guzmán and his team on 16mm film, later smuggled out to make The Battle of Chile (1976) the ‘official’ record of the hard slog and the joyous scenes of the first socialist government to be voted into power in Latin America.

"I need to know who this man was…." Guzmán affirms. Scenes of campaigning from the 1950s onwards, often in US-style from the back of trains, as Allende toured the nation, persuading, cajoling. Contemporary interviews: with the ‘militant socialists’ of Popular Unity, reflecting on the tactics before, during and following the coup; an astoundingly smug performance from Edward Corry, US Ambassador at the time, defending to the end the later impeached President Nixon; an amazingly prescient speech given by Allende to the UN General Assembly, for which he received a standing ovation, warning then of what we know now as ‘globalisation’.

Is this a re-consideration by a film-maker in his sixties of the events in which he was involved as an young artist? It is for sure a more engaging (de)composition than the decidedly wooden attempt by Costa Gavras in the 1982 feature-film Missing to stir the consciences of concerned American voters. Guzmán speaks in voiceover directly of his outrage after so many years of the stymieing of so much promise and "…an energy that could almost be touched…", talents that could have served to remove the inequalities and exploitation that remain to this day on the continent. But is the film-for-television documentary the best contemporary format for keeping these ideas alive, for re-examining and questioning them?

Whilst the film collage ‘documentary’ is a well-established genre for the valid and reasonable singular presentation of knowledge and viewpoints, contemporary media can enable the viewer to be less passive in gathering information from evidence in order to construct knowledge. Records on film and videotape can be presented to enable a hermeneutic role for the student of history to continue to ‘work-on’ the substance of the auteurist narrative viewpoint. Awareness in audiences, particularly younger ones, demand that the material evidence employed is made available for inspection after the individual viewpoint has been expounded. The interactive DVD format, while a recently established method for enabling the substance of a story to be further investigated, (both the back-story and ‘cut scenes’), evinces that web-based archives can better combine the singular viewpoint with the available material evidence.

Over thirty years after the coup, the Cold War has passed, the ‘war on terror’ is in force, focused on a different continent and another perceived enemy. The US ‘sphere of influence’ remains in place, and Latin America languishes as a vassal in the globalised pecking order of a world in disorder. The best that can be drawn from Salvador Allende is that information, if not power, is less centralised than in the time when Guzmán was gathering his sounds and images. A Senator in the Allende government deplores the present day national amnesia that followed the dictatorship of Pinochet, trusting projects such as Guzmán’s to begin the process of recovering memory. Does the internet provide us with the means to keep these channels open, or is there a danger that these sources too, like the tapes made on Portapaks in the 70s, are to become materials for picking over, after the decisions have been made, after the events have ground more misery out for the poor, the disaffected?



Updated 1st April 2007

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@sfsu.edu

copyright © 2007 ISAST