Yesterday marked 40 years since the military coup in Chile, when the popularly elected socialist Salvador Allende was overthrown under the leadership of Augusto Pinochet. We asked Peter Torbiörnsson, journalist and filmmaker who specialises in Latin America, to write about films linked to the coup.
I remember a horse. It’s walking along with its pitiful cart, steaming from the mouth in the cold air, in a Chile that has changed future over the course of a single painful day and night. From now on it was a case of the stick rather than the carrot. The horse has no real place in the narrative that plays out, but it is there in the reality which is the basis of the drama: the country where Salvador Allende had been elected president, and the poor and the lower middle classes would have a decent standard of living as soon as possible. A reality where new life would be breathed into the Chilean countryside through a comprehensive land reform, a reform that was loved by the many who had no land, but hated by the powerful, landed few. And there goes the horse, wandering towards a military stick as heavy as lead, on the way to what for a whole generation was their 9/11.
September 11, 1973, was the day the dream of socialism with a human face suffered a crushing blow, the day General Augusto Pinochet – him with the black sunglasses – led the coup that forced President Allende to his death and began a wave of military oppression in the whole of South America.
It would have taken a Shakespeare to describe this period in early 1970s Chile. There were heroes, traitors, deserters and a utopia on the verge of extinction, while Nixon and Kissinger sharpened their weapons with the Latin American militaries. There were multinational companies scheming with the CIA, and Cold War Moscow where propaganda took over from what was really going on.
Today there are films that commemorate the sweet dreams of the past and a transformation under terror. And I think about that horse. There is a short sequence in one of the best documentary films made in Sweden about a decisive historic moment: Jan Sandquist’s Santiago de Chile (1973). It was made quickly, but it was made well, convincingly and credibly. A film for history, by someone who came from outside.
It was SVT correspondent Jan Sandquist who was responsible for this depiction of people and a country in shock. Only a few months earlier he had lost his photographer Leonardo Henrichsen, who recorded his own death as he filmed one of the preparatory attempts at a coup. (Ed. – Link below to an SVT feature on Henrichsen, also including an interview with Jan Sandquist.)
Watch this film today and taste the flavour of a different era, and then look at Egypt and so many people’s such strong trust in the military. Then look at Patricio Guzmán’s magnificent creation The Battle of Chile (three parts, the first came out in 1975) and see the contemporary drama in all its complexity. Patricio Guzmán was not an outsider. He is a Chilean, and he lived through the entire process. He was one of the millions who stayed locked up in their houses during the long curfews while the helicopters hovered in the sky above, and searchlights lit up the houses where the soldiers would take people away for torture and death. Living like that for a long time is to live in a terror that tears lives and families apart, even if you’re lucky enough not to be taken. Patricio Guzmán went into exile, and then created one of the masterpieces of documentary film history by going through all the material that had been filmed in Chile during the Allende years.
In the fiction genre too there is a film that is tremendously important: Missing (Costa-Gavras, 1982), with a cast including Jack Lemmon – who gives an amazing, understated performance – in his role as a father looking for his missing son during the military coup in Chile. He slowly comes to realise that his own country’s authorities were partly responsible for the hell that has broken loose and for taking his son away from him.
Watch these films and consider the joy of the masses, the creativity in music and literature, which led an unobtrusive life in Chile a couple of years before the coup. I lived there then and I was part in that joy, a joy that vanished, never to return. Under such conditions, the joy of the many people is not something that comes easily. But good film does bring joy. The joy of memories, the joy of knowledge, the joy of recognition.
Photo: Eden Film AB.
Films mentioned in this post:
Santiago de Chile, Jan Sandquist, 1973 (The Swedish Film Database)
The Battle of Chile – The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie, Patricio Guzmán, 1975 (IMDb)
The Battle of Chile – The Coup d’état, Patricio Guzmán, 1976 (IMDb)
The Battle of Chile – Popular Power, Patricio Guzmán, 1979 (IMDb)
Missing, Costa-Gavras, 1982 (IMDb)
See the SVT feature on Henrichsen.
Read more about Peter Torbiörnsson: