Senator defending right wing disorder ...

... is ridiculed by young Communist.


Allende announcing a compromise proposal.


Battle of Chile: Struggle of a People without Arms

[original review of parts I and II]

by Victor Wallis

from Jump Cut, no. 21, Nov. 1979, pp. 8-9
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005, 2010


  • (Part III. PEOPLE'S POWER — not yet completed)

Imagine a live, primetime TV debate between a left-wing student leader and a conservative senator. No commercial interruptions; plenty of rapid-fire exchanges; above all, a nationwide audience overwhelmingly polarized behind one or other of the speakers. This is just one episode of THE BATTLE OF CHILE, with the debate scene shot straight off the flickering tube. It epitomizes, however, the dramatic quality of the raw material which has made possible one of the great documentaries of all time. Even this characterization is perhaps too limiting, though, for as the documentary technique is carried to perfection, the result oversteps the didactic bounds of that category and comes to evoke emotions that we normally associate more with works of fiction.

THE BATTLE OF CHILE personifies the class struggle in a way that has never been done before. It does so in terms that are universally intelligible, while at the same time carrying an authenticity that could never be achieved through merely symbolic figures. In this sense, it goes beyond all previous "people's films." The masses here are not merely participating; they are, in effect, writing their own lines. As for the ruling class, it does not have to be portrayed by professional actors; its own faces show more of its character than could the most carefully chosen stereotypes.

But beyond all this, the film maintains a level of excitement which is unknown in most documentaries and almost unimaginable in one of such length (191 min.). The immediate reason for this is yet another step in the perfection of the film's genre, namely, that all the contending positions which come into play are presented in action. Not only are there no professional performers, but even the public figures who do appear are almost always shown "live" — never in any extended interview situation.

President Salvador Allende UP Defense Minister José Tohá after the quelling of the June 29 coup-attempt, flanked by loyalist General Carlos Prats (left) and future dictator Augusto Pinochet (right)

The only significant use of the interview approach is in eliciting the completely unrehearsed responses of the film's ultimate protagonists: the politicized non-politicians on both sides of the confrontation.

The camera is everywhere — on the streets, in the living rooms, in the factories, the offices, the neighborhoods, the meeting halls, in the presidential palace, and in parliament. Coming to the scene in the midst of the prolonged crisis which had begun with Salvador Allende's election in 1970, it bears direct witness to every major episode of his final months in office, from the March 1973 congressional campaign to the September coup. As if to underline the camera's omnipresence, there is one sequence added to the film from the work of an Argentine TV cameraman, who filmed his own death from the gunfire of a Chilean army officer.

The moment of swirling and blurring which records this act comes at a dividing point in the course of events (the June 29 coup-attempt); it ends Part I of the film and is repeated in the opening frames of Part II. Although the hero/victim was not a member of the BATTLE OF CHILE collective, the emphasis given to his sacrifice is a clear statement of the filmmakers' guiding conviction: that they themselves, along with their medium, have a central role to play in the class struggle.

The perfection of the documentary is thus assimilated in yet a third way with the peak of artistic achievement. If the focus on "real people" maximizes authenticity, and if the direct filming of conflict maximizes excitement, so also — on the director's part — the fullest commitment to the role of observer reflects the most complete immersion in the reality that one is filming. The director goes beyond controlling the movements of the film's characters. The characters move themselves, but the director transmits, compresses, and heightens the interaction by knowing what their movements will be.

In the case at hand, director Patricio Guzman doesn't tell any of his subjects what to do, but, as he has since made clear, (1) he anticipates their actions with as much assurance as if he had so directed them. The example he refers to involves the filming of a street battle, but the political understanding in question is reflected in every aspect of the filmmaking process.

UP official confers with police commander during a street battle.

At the most immediate level, it dictated that the project should be kept unpublicized, and that each day's footage should be promptly hidden. More generally, Guzman's political awareness dictated a basic judgment about the film's objective — namely, that it could best serve the revolution not by promoting any single interpretation of the events, but rather by recording the Chilean experience as thoroughly and completely as possible, with full attention to the wide range of forces that could be found on both sides of the conflict.

That so all-inclusive an approach could be applied without sacrificing any of the film's intensity is a tribute both to the filmmakers and to the Chilean working class.

The filmmakers knew where to be, how to get there, and what to do with the material. They gained the trust of those for whom the truth was important (e.g., workers debating the government's strategy), while using appropriate subterfuge against those who had something to hide (e.g., a bourgeois household, which they entered posing as representatives of the conservative TV network). And when the footage was finally recovered in Cuba, months after the coup, they applied the full measure of their skill and insight to shaping the final product: alternating scenes of individuals and of crowds, of talking and action, of leaders and constituents, of friends and enemies, of conciliators and intransigents. In terms of the film's presentation, the only problems I found were with the narration (which said too little at some points and too much at others) and, in one instance, with the repeating of a particular demonstration sequence in a context that jarred the chronological framework. These problems seem minor, however, in comparison with the film's positive qualities.

When all else has been said, though, what remains the most exceptional aspect of this film is the subject matter itself: "the struggle of a people without arms." As to the immediate outcome of this struggle, there is never any doubt, for the film opens with the act which buried Allende's "legal road to socialism" — the bombing of the presidential palace. But the perspective this gives us in no way diminishes the film's impact. We know that the military threat was in varying degrees present all along, but if anything, this makes the workers' advances even more impressive. For a North American audience, in particular, it is a continuous revelation to feel the depth of the people's fighting spirit — in their demonstrations, their meetings, their performance of vital daily services, in their spontaneous comments, and, as the end draws near, in their embryonic acts of resistance.

But while we identify with the workers, we also ask ourselves whether there is any way they could have won. The film does not presume to answer this question, but it provides eloquent examples of the people's frustration at not being able to take stronger measures of control and self-defense. We hear factory workers demanding firm leadership from the government, and we hear working class housewives calling for the distribution of arms. All this comes, however, only during the final two months, by which time the Armed Forces have already seized the initiative. With reactionary violence endemic, we can well appreciate the futility of Allende's continued emphasis on the legal process, but at the same time it seems clear that any hope for building an effective popular counterattack is already too late.

If the key to a workers' victory is to be found, it is not in the period covered by the film itself. The film begins only after Allende has been in office for more than two years. What it shows are, in effect, the final stages of the battle, after the prevailing strategy on the side of the Left has already been irrevocably determined. This strategy, embodied mainly by the Communist Party but also accepted by Allende, was essentially one of doing whatever was necessary to keep the Armed Forces' leadership neutral. It was assumed that this could be achieved as long as the government respected the Constitution, in particular, by not allowing any expropriations to be carried out except through the regular legislative process — a restriction which in practice, after 1971, meant no expropriations at all. Adhering to this limitation, the idea was to win over the "progressive" sectors of the middle class and to isolate and discredit the Right.

The alternative strategy is still expressed in the film, but with less real hope of success than it had had at an earlier point. According to this approach, as expressed within Allende's coalition by the Socialist Party leadership and from outside by the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left), any notion of Armed Forces neutrality was in the long run illusory. A direct clash with the bourgeoisie was inevitable and indeed had already been taking place ever since the first plant shutdowns following Allende's election. The "middle class," at least in its commercial sectors, was hopelessly tied to the big bourgeoisie. The only chance for a Left victory lay in extending the active role of the working class on all fronts, including organizing the unorganized (typically in the smaller businesses) and encouraging rank-and-file politicization within the Armed Forces — an approach for which a case could be made in legal terms as long as the objective was to counteract plotting against the duly constituted government.

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