- Salvador Allende
To residents of the United States, September 11 is remembered as the date in 2001 when Al Qaida’s airplane hijackers attacked the World Trade Center towers and Pentagon. For Chileans, it was the day in 1973 when the Chilean military bombed and fired upon on La Moneda, the seat of national government in the capital city of Santiago. The CIA-sponsored military coup ousted the Popular Unity government, assassinated its leader, Salvador Allende, and began several decades of brutal repression under General Augusto Pinochet. It arrested, tortured and “disappeared” thousands of students and intellectuals and sent many others into exile. In 2003, 30 years after the coup, film-maker Patricio Guzmán returned home to make this movie.
While he recalls how for him the Allende era “incarnated the utopia of a just and free world,” Guzmán explores whether Allende was a patriot or—in U.S. President Nixon’s phrase—a “son of a bitch.” Some veterans of Allende’s own Popular Unity party blame him for failure to arm the populace against the army. The film contains biographical material on Allende, documentary footage that includes what was smuggled out of the country by Guzmán and used in his Battle of Chile, plus chapters on right-wing opposition tactics, Allende’s communication with Fidel Castro and “Chilean Silence on Allende Today.” The filmmaker gives Edward Korry, former U.S. Ambassador to Chile, a chance to tell his side of the story.
Early in this film Guzmán’s hand chips away at encrusted layers of a wall, under which artistic paint can be glimpsed. Muralist Mono Gonzales refused exile and stayed to defiantly paint neighborhood public walls with the Brigada Ramon Parra; today he recalls, “The people took over the walls, like the Right detains the Media.” We see Gonzales carefully unroll cracked and torn drawings by Roberto Matta, and elsewhere Guzmán pores over evocative moldy, water-damaged sepia family photographs. José Balmes draws La Moneda, rubbing and obscuring it as if with cannon fire or the fog of memory. Ema Melig paints huge fictional maps in which Guzmán sees an allegory of the exile’s Chile as “drifting islands that never connect.” This reviewer recalls an intellectual named Gasmán, former faculty at Chile’s Catholic University, who lived in a California apartment complex in the 1980s, who might concur.
The 1973 coup had an international effect upon the arts. The Brigada Letelier, sons of the Chilean ambassador to the U.S. who was assassinated in Washington, D.C., in 1976, painted community murals in San Francisco in the abstracted style developed by the late-night art activists of Santiago. The novelist José Donoso lived in Spain and taught several semesters in the U.S. at Dartmouth College and the University of Iowa while producing the surreal Obscene Bird of Night, politically allegorical House in the Country and realistic Curfew. Guzmán brings us political surrealism when Gonzalo Milan reads a poem about time flowing in reverse to undo the coup against Allende, with planes flying backwards and bullets returning into the barrels of guns; the film ends with Milan’s final word, “venceremos” (we will win).
The decisive September 11 in the U.S.A., 28 years after Chile’s, was the excuse for my own nation to fall into misguided military adventure under a leader scornful of our Constitution, to result—as in Chile––in constriction of freedom, great suffering and needless loss of life. Perhaps Chile, the U.S.A., Germany, the U.K. and every nation are equally at risk of backsliding from liberty and justice without constant citizen vigilance. Guzmán’s film Salvador Allende eloquently reminds us of that fact and should be shown widely.