Resistance vs. exile: the political rhetoric of Chilean exile cinema in the 1970s

by José Miguel Palacios

On the night of September 4, 1970, the Chilean people went to the streets to celebrate Salvador Allende, who had just become the first Marxist in the country’s history to be democratically elected as president. Allende had to wait until his fourth presidential campaign—his previous attempts were in 1952, 1958, and 1964—to achieve victory, but the workers and peasants, the poor of the nation, had waited much longer for someone like Allende to represent them. An educated doctor, he was not one of them. But they called him compañero presidente because for the first time they had a president and a government that they felt were theirs. Chile quickly captured the attention of artists, intellectuals, and politicians throughout the world since Allende’s government had a different vision. Known as the Vía Chilena, or “Chilean Way,” Allende proposed a “democratic revolution” to achieve socialism: a peaceful process of change within the boundaries of bourgeois, constitutional democracy.

Allende took office with an ambitious program of social transformations that included the nationalization of major industries (controlled until then by U.S. corporations) and the redistribution of land to peasants. The experience found immediate resistance from the country’s reactionary forces — the upper classes, transnational corporations, conservative guilds and professional associations, right-wing media — and from the U.S. government, which funded the military coup that eventually toppled Allende on September 11, 1973. The “Chilean Way” had to deal with internal opposition, too. The platform supporting Allende — the Popular Unity, a coalition of several parties — was the result of two contradictory positions in the Chilean Left. One thought that the adequate path toward socialism had to be developed within existing legal and institutional structures. The other sought to intensify strategies of “popular power,” with the ultimate goal of destroying the constitutional order — thereby making room for the advent of true socialism (Casals 11).

The political fragmentation of the Left at the time found its equivalent in the variety of cinematic responses to the social process experienced under the Popular Unity government. Soon before Allende’s election, in 1970, filmmakers wrote a manifesto calling for a revolutionary cinema committed “to the task of our time: the construction of socialism” (Littin 1976: 83). The films produced during the three years of the Popular Unity were heterogeneous in their range of aesthetic and narrative choices. They were mostly produced by artists and production companies outside of Chile Films[1]open endnotes in new window] —the state-owned film production company–and they were often critical of the historical process the country was experiencing. This cinema, far from being monolithic, reveals the political complexity of the Allende years.[2] [Since most filmmakers were militants either of the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, or the MIR (Movement of Revolutionary Left), internal partisan debates inevitably permeated their cinematic practice. And so the Popular Unity government saw no homogeneous or unified film program for imagining, capturing, allegorizing, or thinking with and through the social changes that were taking place in Allende’s Chile. The discussions grew more acute in the wake of the Coup, insofar as the radicalization of the social and political landscape called for a radicalized or revolutionary cinema. The question of what made cinema “revolutionary” or “political” was up for debate, however, what united Chilean filmmakers was their desire to intervene in the political sphere.

For the military, this made them part of the “Marxist cancer” that had to be eliminated. The Junta, led by Augusto Pinochet, carried out an “internal enemy” doctrine, based on total annihilation of political dissent. The government imprisoned, tortured, executed, “disappeared,” and forced into exile thousands of Allende’s supporters and leftist militants, including filmmakers. Facing real danger, directors looked for asylum as a way to leave the country and resume their lives in exile.

The large corpus of Chilean exile films produced in countries such as Canada, Cuba, Finland, France, East and West Germany, Mexico, Mozambique, Spain, Sweden, and Venezuela, among others, was possible to a large degree by cinematic networks and practices of solidarity, which enabled Chilean filmmakers to continue making films in exile. In their host countries, Chilean exile filmmakers encountered the solidarity of peers and of strangers. It was a solidarity that had naturally emerged as expression of support to a people going through a unique revolutionary process, but that had been multiplied and transformed after 1973 into a huge worldwide solidarity movement, now in support of a people resisting a military dictatorship. This support was visible in economic boycotts, in street protests, in hunger strikes, and in the creation of “Chile Committee.”[4] For exiles, and for exile filmmakers, solidarity became a way of being in the world, providing them with a new range of actions with which to act in the political sphere.

Scholarly accounts of Chilean exile cinema posit the end of the 1970s as a moment of crisis and transformation. Near the end of the decade, most studies claim, Chilean exile cinema moves away from a militant phase and turns to a much more diverse aesthetic and thematic body of films.[5] This narrative needs to be complicated. Most of the early works produced in exile, especially short films, can indeed be labeled “militant.” Overtly political, they celebrated the Allende years and denounced the crimes of the dictatorship that took over. But even if the number decreased later in the decade, Chilean directors never ceased making these films. As Zuzana Pick noted:

“while new thematic concerns and aesthetic strategies characterize the individual filmmakers’ efforts, their deeply-rooted commitment to a national and continental history determines how they approach the film medium itself” (1987: n.p.).

Two things are true: by 1975 there were already unorthodox films in their approach to exile and even films that had little to do with Chilean politics, and by the end of the 1980s there were still “militant” films, perhaps with more sophisticated political and aesthetic goals as the dictatorship endured.[6] The evolutionary narrative in which a “cinema of resistance” gives way to a “cinema of exile” does not hold. The teleology behind these accounts is misleading; nonetheless, it is undeniable that the end of the 1970s sees a change in Chilean exile cinema, both in the nature of a large amount of films and in the directors’ discourse about their exilic practice. The public debates they had in 1979 transpire a feeling of exhaustion and crisis, even if directors avoided recognizing it explicitly as such. What kind of signs can explain this exhaustion?

Exile as a historical and cultural situation—and by 1979 directors had already lived six years under it, a lapse in which they had made around seventy films—demanded new questions, forcing filmmakers to redefine both the “political” and “cinema” as they knew it. What kind of films to make? How to situate oneself as an exile filmmaker in the public sphere? Who to address in their work? How to reconcile two simultaneous and sometimes contradictory desires: the need to hang onto the cultural signs of the homeland while incorporating elements of the local culture of which they were now part?

Obviously, there could not be an homogenous response to these questions, since Chilean filmmakers were working in very different conditions: some made films for State studios in socialist countries, like DEFA in the GDR and Mosfilm in the Soviet Union; some benefited from small programs of multicultural aid or from the support of larger national film institutes, like the NFB in Canada; some developed international coproductions at a continental and Iberoamerican scale, like Miguel Littin; some made their first works while at film school, like Luis Vera in Romania; and some worked independently or formed their own production companies. The ways in which these films were exhibited and how they circulated differed, too. And so did the stories, formats, genres, characters, and topics with which filmmakers worked. But there was still some common ground. Most directors, explicitly or more loosely, thought of their work in relation to Chile and its history, its culture, and its present under a criminal and authoritarian regime. And most conceived of their films as some sort of “intervention” in the political arena. If this was the case, what changed near the end of the 1970s? Why signaling the closure of the decade as a moment of crisis?

In order to answer these questions, I move away from the films as objects of study and center my attention on Chilean filmmakers’ rhetoric. In her historical overview of Chilean exile cinema, Pick claimed:

“for Chilean filmmakers to accept each others’ aesthetic and thematic hetereogeneity, they have had to pass through a stage of bitter polemics, declarations about the need to preserve purely Chilean themes, and accusations of political opportunism” (1987: n.p.).

This essay analyzes the rhetoric behind some of those polemics and declarations. I argue that the decade did not see the passage from one phase of Chilean exile cinema to another. Instead, what happened during the 1970s was a struggle between different ways to conceive of the political nature of cinema, especially under the new historical condition that exile supposed. For Chilean exile directors, this debate took place in various gatherings and film festivals, which offered spaces of interaction where filmmakers could overcome their geographic dispersion and isolation. This essay will chart a festival road map that travels from Caracas, Venezuela (1974) to Pesaro, Italy (1974), and then to Moscow, the Soviet Union (1979). I contend that in these events Chilean filmmakers enacted a rhetoric that plays out as an ideological opposition between resistance and exile.

A film festival road map

Chilean exile directors encountered practices and discourses of solidarity in numerous film festivals and meetings. Although this road map begins with the Caracas meeting in September 1974, two precedents must be noted. The Oberhausen Film Festival (April 22 – 27, 1974) had a special program titled “Solidarity with Chile,” in which they screened eleven films about the nation’s recent events, including

As Mónica Villarroel and Isabel Mardones noted, during the festival, a group of Chilean filmmakers signing under the name of Chilenischer Widerstand — Kinofront (Chilean Resistance—Cinema Front) issued a manifesto in which they denounced the incarceration and torture of Chilean actors and other members of the film world. They also made an explicit call for solidarity:

“In the name of all of us who are part of this front, we thank you for the solidarity you have shown us. We also thank you in the name of those who use cinema as an arm of liberation and in service of the revolution. Chile does not give up! Venceremos!”

This statement is similar to the “Declaración de Estocolmo” dated February 1st, 1974, which defined cinema as an arm of liberation:

“We understood it like that under the Popular Unity. Today, we put cinema in the service of the Chilean people in its struggle against fascism” (Villarroel and Mardones 87-88).[7]

The mention of these precedents shows that Caracas, Pesaro, and Moscow were not the only events that demonstrated solidarity with the Chilean cause. But I am highlighting them because they evidence a double continuity. First, the debates over the meanings of resistance and exile that took place in Caracas were developed and reformulated in new ways in Pesaro and later in Moscow. It should also be noted that this ongoing conversation that Chilean exile filmmakers engaged in was prompted by the festival screenings they were attending, and therefore shaped to a certain degree by the curatorial decisions of programmers. The programming in these events was overtly political. Moscow and Pesaro, in addition to other festivals like Leipzig in East Germany, played an important role in the geopolitical map of cinema during the Cold War. Moscow was the major festival of the Soviet bloc and Pesaro, with its annual retrospectives, had become a relevant site in the cinematic relations between Italy and Latin America (Mestman 2012: 171). Pesaro’s 1974 version, for example, had a special program of Chilean cinema under Allende, showcasing the feature films of Littin and Ruiz. The following version focused on the first films made by Chileans in exile, therefore establishing, as Julianne Burton suggested in her review for Jump Cut,

“a continuing emphasis on Chilean cinema and an opportunity to seriously consider the options and prospects of an exiled film movement” (1975a: n.p.).

The beginning of this festival road map also shows a sense of continuity with the past. Caracas crystallized an accumulation of recent similar experiences—meetings where radical filmmakers from the Third World discussed the challenges of film production and distribution in tandem with their national struggles of liberation and decolonization. In this sense, Caracas, as an event of solidarity with Chile, is unthinkable without previous tri-continental and continental gatherings of filmmakers.

Caracas (1974)

In September 1974, more than forty Latin American filmmakers gathered in Caracas, Venezuela, for the Encuentro de Cineastas Latinoamericanos en Solidaridad con el Pueblo y los Cineastas de Chile (Encounter of Latin American Filmmakers in Solidarity with the People and Filmmakers from Chile).[8] I want to note three aspects of this meeting. First, it reaffirmed a particular genealogy of the New Latin American Cinema. Following the events held in Viña del Mar, Chile, in 1967 and 1969, and in Mérida, Venezuela, 1968, Caracas presented itself as the fourth installment in a series of festivals in which Latin American filmmakers defined their practice as a cinema of cultural decolonization and national liberation.

Three tri-continental meetings preceded the event in Caracas: Algiers in December 1973, Buenos Aires in May 1974, and Montreal in June 1974. The introduction to the statement issued by the filmmakers attending Caracas, nevertheless, mentioned these meetings only in passing, downplaying the Third Worldist impetus that guided them (“Declaración” 11). Third Worldism needs to be understood here as a dominant “discourse and ideological orientation” (Shohat and Stam 1994: 248-290; Stam 1999: 291) in the cultural and political imagination of the 1960s and 70s. In his study of the Algiers and Buenos Aires meetings, Mariano Mestman defined Third Worldism as “a utopia which allows the grouping together of newly liberated and decolonizing countries within the same project as others which, though politically independent, were perceived as ‘neocolonized’” (2002: 51). In Caracas, however, the creation of a specifically Latin American Filmmakers Committee—echoing but independent from the Third World Cinema Committee founded in Algiers—thus signaled a move from tri-continentalism to continentalism.

In this shift, the encounter of different peripheries became less important than the affirmation of Latin America as its own center. The recent proliferation of military dictatorships in the Southern Cone had changed the geopolitical landscape. In addition to Chile’s 1973 coup, Brazil had experienced its own coup in 1964 and went through a dictatorship that lasted two decades, until 1985. In 1964 as well, Bolivia saw a succession of coups and short military governments, leading to Hugo Banzer’s dictatorship—a much more repressive regime lasting from 1971 until 1978. Uruguay faced a coup in 1973, a few months before Chile, and went through a twelve-year dictatorship. And two years after the Caracas event, in 1976, a new coup initiated a brutal military dictatorship in Argentina. Each of these authoritarian regimes tortured, murdered, disappeared, and exiled leftist militants and supporters—a fate that was shared by many politically committed directors from all of these countries.

Under this new context, filmmakers claimed that the Latin American Filmmakers Committee opened an organized front of struggle with urgent tasks to accomplish.

“Our responsibility is to demarcate, in every one of our countries, the line separating imperialism and its intermediaries from all those forces struggling for true national liberation” (“Declaración” 13).[9]

In this struggle, the Chilean case—with the contested experience of Chile Films as a state-owned film production company, the right wing’s ideological control of the media, and the imprisonment, torture, and exile suffered by many members of the film world—served as the most recent and painful cautionary tale for Latin American filmmakers.

Second, as the title indicates, the Caracas encounter was an expression of what organizers called “militant solidarity.” The event was planned to coincide with the first anniversary of the coup and with worldwide manifestations to denounce the Junta, with the explicit understanding that “the struggle of the Chilean people is the struggle of all peoples of the world” (“Introducción” 7). “Before filmmakers,” the text stated, “we are militants of the struggles of our peoples” (“Documento” 22).[10] In these different invocations of solidarity the term meant concrete tasks: to devise actions of support for fellow exile filmmakers, to integrate them into their respective host nations and film industries; and to organize public campaigns to get Chilean filmmakers out of prison and out of torture centers.[11]

The discursive strategy at work here involves a deep entanglement of resistance and solidarity. One does not produce, or is the cause of, the other; both are intertwined and need each other. Acts of resistance are possible through solidarity efforts but solidarity is only conceivable if it advances resistance. In this rhetoric both concepts are abstractions, hence the need to flesh them out by listing goals and creating committees. Concepts are translated into bullet points with specific goals in order to move from ideas of resistance and solidarity to concrete practices of resistance and solidarity.

The third relevant aspect of the Caracas encounter is discernible in Miguel Littin’s long essay on Chilean cinema and the government of the Popular Unity.[12] Littin intervened by virtue of his triple status: as an exile in Mexico, as the former director of Chile Films during the first year of Allende’s presidency, and as one of the newly appointed members of the Latin American Filmmakers Committee. In his talk, Littin explained what he saw as the failures of revolutionary cinema under Allende. He claimed that filmmakers could not turn Chile Films into a “centralized organ with real power” (Littin 1974: 32) and therefore had to deal with the limitations of producing a “revolutionary cinema within the apparatus of the bourgeois state” (33). Littin also introduced an idea that was to become dominant for filmmakers and historians. In the wake of the coup, he argued, the process of class struggle was reaching such a level of acuteness, the acceleration of historical events was such, that the cinematic medium as an instrument in direct service of a revolutionary process became obsolete (Littin 1974: 41).[13] (I will return to the implications of this idea for Chilean exile cinema later in this essay.)

Littin concluded his speech with a reflection on the role of artists and intellectuals under the current political situation. He mentioned that Chilean filmmakers had organized themselves in a Front of Resistance, echoing the strategies of popular resistance devised by the masses in Chile. Littin proposed a series of tasks to be undertaken by filmmakers throughout the world, which included organizing screening series devoted to Latin American cinema as a way to raise funds for the Chilean resistance, and working to facilitate conditions so that every Chilean exile director could make the film that “the Chilean resistance demands” (1974: 51).

What did this demand mean? In his words, it meant all films that “have as a priority to forge the image of a people in struggle and with faith in victory” and those “that analyze different periods of the life of the country so as to rightfully comprehend recent events and project the future” (Littin 1974: 50-1).

But Littin’s intervention is marked by an absence: he never says the words “exile cinema.”

Así nace un desaparecido, dir. Angelina Vázquez (Finland, 1977): In the Caracas encounter, Littin claimed that the Chilean resistance demanded films that “have as a priority to forge the image of a people in struggle and with faith in victory.” These are some works that fit that description. Vázquez’s first film in exile uses animation to produce a powerful and didactic piece in which she explains what a “disappeared” is.

Pinochet: asesino, fascista, traidor, agente del imperialismo, dir. Sergio Castilla (Sweden, 1974): Using children’s drawings, in Sweden, 1974, Sergio Castilla crafted a short animation that, according to him, achieved its goal just by virtue of appearing in the TV guide. The film gains meaning in the uttering of its title: Pinochet: Fascist, Murderer, Traitor, Agent of Imperialism— epithets that are repeated by the stark voice over of a woman in the soundtrack.
La revolución no la para nadie, dir. Juan Forch (East Germany, 1976): Directed by Juan Forch in the DEFA studios in East Germany, La revolución no la para nadie works purposefully in a temporal disjunction, celebrating the Popular Unity years as if Allende was still in power, the coup had not happened, and the revolution was still possible. Matan a mi mañungo!, dir. Jorge Fajardo (Canada, 1979): Matan a mi mañungo! is a magnificent verité-style documentary portraying a group fast by Chilean exiles and Canadians in Montreal.