The celebrated Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán has used cinema as a means to explore the turbulent history of his homeland, first with his trilogy The Battle of Chile, (1975-1979) that chronicled the struggles of Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government, and the ensuing coup d’état that saw the commencement of Augusto Pinochet’s authoritarian regime. Now fast-forward through the succeeding decades to the present, and evidenced is how the genocide perpetrated by Pinochet haunts Guzmán’s current work-in-progress. While the Chilean desert is cast as a graveyard for Pinochet’s victims in Nostalgia for the Light (2012), his most recent film, The Pearl Button (2015) is a reminder that the shadow of the dictator’s crimes reaches out to sea, another final resting place chosen for his victims. Yet Guzmán is a documentarian who understands layers, and with The Pearl Button more so than Nostalgia for the Light, he moves beyond the horrors of the past and the impression they have left in a country and one of its artists to create a more complex documentary narrative. With this the second film in a planned trilogy now complete, the larger project remains a work in progress, as Guzmán moves onward to a second trilogy.
In conversation with Film Frame, Guzmán remembered the early part of his creative journey, the historical relationship of fiction to documentary, the source of his love for film and his plans for the completion of this, his latest trilogy.
Film Frame: Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Patricio Guzmán: I started making films in 8mm with a group of friends when I was sixteen-years-old. We would just make films about things that were happening in Chile, but that had a social connotation. And without any transition I went to Spain, to an excellent film school that was very similar to EDHEC (Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales du Nord) in France, and to the Experimental Film Centre in Rome. You must not forget that the Centre in Rome was created by Mussolini and the Spanish one, the Madrid Film School/Official School of Cinematography of Madrid, was actually created by Franco [laughs]. And these two schools came to be extreme left wing in their inspirations. Among my lecturers were Carlos Saura, who was one of the most important, and Víctor Erice, both of who were great filmmakers, as well as Luis García Berlanga.
When I returned to Chile with my daughter and my wife of that time, I found myself deeply involved with the Chilean process. And the film school gave me the actual 16mm film stock to make a project I had proposed to them – a film about the first year of Salvador Allende’s government. So my definition as a filmmaker was very quick and instant. I just filmed everything that was going on, even from a superficial point of view, like a news report, except that it lasts one and a half hours from the moment Allende took power, to the visit of Fidel Castro. And it was a film that was euphoric and full of victory and people. I didn’t actually interview the leaders, the ministers in power, not even Allende himself, but the people themselves. And I found that riveting.
At that time Chris Marker came to Chile and he’d seen my film, so he came to see me at my house. He knocked on the door [laughs] and said: “Hi, I’m Chris Marker.” I was terribly impressed. I had seen his film Le Jetée (1962) and I was frozen; I was speechless. “Sit down please. Would you like some tea?” He was laughing. He was a very serious person; a static person, almost like a Martian – ears like Spock. I’d seen his films which I liked, and he said to me: “I have seen your film, I’ll buy it. Give me the film and I will show it in France.” He told me he’d come to make a similar film, but I’d already done it, and he’d buy mine and off he went. About six or seven months later he managed to premiere it in France and Belgium, and what he did was quite extraordinary. He post-synced it with French voices, but with special people: Simone Signoret and Yves Montand – famous actors. And that gave the film a huge impetus. It was so well done that you could hear the Chilean voices behind the French voices – it was very powerful and very good. But I couldn’t go to France at that time because I had no money and the situation in Chile was so agitated that it wasn’t possible. So I started preparing a fiction film, but in the middle of this work a huge and very threatening right wing inspired strike with the idea of bringing Allende down took place. So I abandoned my fiction film and I went back to my previous filming techniques. I wrote to Chris Marker again: ‘Please I need film stock as soon as possible’ and one week later a huge packet about as big as this table arrived at the airport – 16mm stock, negative and positive, and reversal film, as well as magnetic stock (magnetic tapes) for the Nagra. It was the first time in my life I had actually seen a new tape because we always filmed with old stock that was completely out of date. So for a whole day we were just sniffing it to take in this wonderful smell of the new, and just admiring it. It was a good experience and that’s where The Battle of Chile started, which was three feature length films one after the other – one, two and three. And of course it is the film that gave me a name in the world because they were sold to at least thirty or thirty-five countries – all of Europe, America, Canada and Nigeria, and lots of socialist countries… Well the known world. I was just thirty six-years-old and it was a very positive moment for me.
Film Frame: There was a time when narrative features and documentaries were discussed independently of one another. It appears that this divide has now been bridged, allowing both to be discussed as storytelling forms. Obviously the nature of the story for each is fundamentally different, but how do you view the relationship between narrative feature and documentary?
Guzmán: There has always been a kind of proximity between fiction and documentary that is very strong. Flaherty [Robert Joseph] is an example, Grierson the same, and the films about the cities – The City Symphony. And also the Russian Dziga Vertov. Does that mean something to you? He’s one of the creators of documentaries in the Soviet Union.
There has always been a point of contact and this proximity – not completely revealed or confessed – is almost like a secret that has actually produced very good documentaries, and in my time they were different films. You have America As Seen by a Frenchman (1960) – you can look it up in an encyclopaedia. You have Europe at Night (1959) an Italian film, The Mystery of Picasso (1956) by Clouzot, The Living Desert (1953) by Disney, Mein Kampf (1960) by Erwin Leiser, a German who lived in Sweden, and To Die in Madrid (1963). These films were a huge success with audiences and in Chile the cinemas were packed. There was not such a difference between documentaries and fiction, and so they all arrived on the big screens, and I was inspired by that. And The Battle of Chile (1975-1979) emerged from here – it was an extraordinary time.
Film Frame: The media is one way for us to look at the world, but film also shapes our impression of the world, our history and identity. For example coming of age films alongside the way cinema more broadly represents childhood, when we now look back to our own childhood are our real memories intertwined with filmic experience or filmic memories? If so, it speaks of the way cinema shapes our view and the importance of cinema as an art form beyond entertainment.
Guzmán: A very interesting question, but I don’t think I’ll be able to answer it clearly because it represents my most profound soul in a sense… Of myself. I find that film should have an educational aspect, but it has to be artistic and at the same time mysterious. And with this combination you manage to get a kind of result of a product reaching the audience, which is of course unique. I love it as a result of that and I have learned from famous directors like Frederick Wiseman or Nicolas Philibert, who is a contemporary of mine. This combination of passion and educational aspects discovers contradictions in life that are usually huge, and it is what inspires me to make films, and it makes me feel close to the audience.
Film Frame: There is a wonderful symmetry between Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button – the former looks upward to the sky, while the latter looks downward into the ocean.
Guzmán: You are absolutely right. There is a very deep connection between these two films, which I am hoping will also have a relationship with the third one that is yet to come. I want the third one to be about the Andes, which are around 4000 KM of mountains. Why is Chile so isolated? Possibly because of this mountain range. The planes go by everyday, but not the mind. So if you imagine that in this corridor, which is this narrow strip of land, then you have the sea, and then there is another ten thousand kilometres before it even reaches Japan. So this tiny little area is isolated and that physical situation fascinates me. So I am going to start with the mountains, but it will probably be the same in a sense as the others because the images will work their own magic.
Film Frame: And did you intend this to be a trilogy of films when you first began?
Guzmán: Very vaguely… Very vaguely.
Film Frame: German filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” How have your films shaped you as a person and the way in which you perceive the world around you?
Guzmán: That’s a very interesting question, and I think you change a great deal. It is a dialectic relationship. You make the film and then the film itself changes you. And then by the time the next film comes along, you are already a different person – again you are changed. So it is a progression, which is fascinating and is the opposite of growing old. Wiseman is eighty-five and he is still continuing to make films as if he were an adolescent. It’s wonderful and it’s strange because when you start you have no idea.
The Pearl Button is available to own on DVD in the UK courtesy of New Wave Films.