Pesaro (1974)

Consider the last paragraph of a statement read by the Chilean delegation present at the 10th Mostra Internazionale del Nuovo Cinema de Pesaro, 1974. Instead of a cautious avoidance of the term, exile is formulated in conceptual opposition with the idea of resistance:

“We define our movement as that of a cinema of resistance in opposition to a cinema in exile devoid of real contact with the struggle of our people. We are dedicated to strengthen our ties with the groups that are working towards further developing this struggle, through the tasks defined by the parties and organizations in relation to the spheres of cinema and mass media.The Chilean resistance shall overcome.” (“Déclaration collective”: 42).

Directors Miguel Littin, Raúl Ruiz, Valeria Sarmiento, and actor Nelson Villagra formed the Chilean delegation at Pesaro. A number of elements indicate a continuity with the declaration offered only days earlier in Caracas: the reference to the 1970 manifesto as the document that defined the foundations for the cinema to come; the political analysis of the Popular Unity; the summary of tasks achieved by Chile Films; the call to free imprisoned directors and actors; and the tendency to reduce everything to a question of cultural and ideological struggle. These aspects also suggest that the author of the Pesaro statement was most likely Miguel Littin.

In this idea of “making the films that the Chilean resistance demands” and in its opposition to exile, resistance comes to name an overarching category of films very different in nature. They are grouped by the fact that they can all be regarded as instruments of cultural and political struggle. But privileging this sense of unity had costs. It inevitably excluded a whole range of exile films and, at the same time, it homogenized the diversity of films that self-identified as from the left. Resistance thus produced Chilean cinema’s own “others,” which, the Pesaro statement tells us, go by the name of “exile cinema.”

It is reasonable to assume that at least both Ruiz and Sarmiento were not in agreement with the language of this proclamation, especially its last paragraph, which suggests that filmmakers will follow political organizations in any way they deem necessary. Even if Ruiz was a militant of the Socialist Party, he was always against the category of the militant artist—in his words, “always a bad militant and a bad artist.”

Ruiz’s work in Chile offered evidence of his political unorthodoxy from the beginning; however, his caustic critique of the Chilean exile experience in Dialogues of Exiles (1974), which premiered at Pesaro, surprised his fellow filmmakers and was thought to be deeply inappropriate for the political conditions of the times. That is, in 1974 — a moment in which the Chilean dictatorship’s rates of imprisonment, torture, murders, and disappearance were at their highest — the priorities of Chilean exile cinema should be anything but internal critique. This was, at least, what the rhetoric of resistance was broadcasting. Only one year after the Coup, the Pesaro statement must be read, then, as a sign of unity — or at least as a sign that unity was an attribute Chilean filmmakers were obliged to exhibit in their relation to the international community.

Diálogo de exiliados, dir. Raúl Ruiz (France, 1974): Because of the mordacity of its humor in its portrait of Chilean exiles (it leaves some of them as opportunists and thieves), Dialogues of Exiles raised a controversy among Chilean filmmakers and the exile community, which deemed the film inappropriate for the times. Ruiz, however, was merely continuing the aesthetic project he had initiated in Chile—“un cine de indagación.” Opposed to the didactic cinema of the likes of Solanas and Getino, and to the deeply allegorical work of someone like Glauber Rocha, Ruiz’s cinema of “inquiry” was an effort in “ideological introspection”—a search for the clues that would explain a given group or nation.

Ruiz, thus, understood the nature of political cinema in less explicit terms than Littin. His was always an “irresponsible” cinema. This had costs. As he recalls—certainly with some degree of exaggeration: “After the response to Dialogues of Exiles there was a rupture with all organizations. In fact, I didn’t seek it; I was literally excised from all Chilean and Latin American organizations. I had no other choice thus than to be French” (qted. in Cuneo 195-6).

The following two films below by Ruiz are examples of his ideological inversions:

La expropiación, dir. Raúl Ruiz (Chile, 1973): In La expropiación, a representative of the state comes to expropriate a farm and give the land to the peasants, but they don’t want that and end up killing the man. El realismo socialista, dir. Raúl Ruiz (Chile, 1973): El realismo socialista—according to Ruiz, made “to contribute to the internal debate in the Socialist Party”—shows us two opposed journeys: a conservative ad man in a process of political awakening that turns him into a radical leftist, and a worker who transitions from the extreme left to the extreme right. 

By no means do I want to create an artificial opposition between Littin and Ruiz. It is relevant to sketch, nonetheless, some of the differences between them. During the Popular Unity government, Littin was seen as the cinematic embodiment of the 1970 manifesto—in short, someone who conceived of cinema as an instrument, a tool in service of something much larger than cinema: revolution. Ruiz, in turn, deviated from all aesthetic norms and mandates. Ironic and mordacious, his early films were direct challenges to Leftist aesthetic imperatives. But even if they were unorthodox, Ruiz still made these films with the desire to engage with, not move away from, the aesthetic debates in the Left. The difference was that Ruiz thought of “resistance” not as the master concept under which to imagine practices of cultural struggle, but as a series of “tactics of rejection of any given order.” Differing from Littin’s acute sense of political responsibility, Ruiz considered his relationship with politics as one of “irresponsibility” and “experimentation” (Christie and Coad 103-114).

Exile placed Littin and Ruiz in different paths, too. This is not the place to examine at length the trajectories each of them faced after the coup, although it is safe to say that if exile enabled Littin to reimagine his affiliation to the Chilean nation by virtue of a strategic continentalism, exile provided Ruiz with the nomadic dream of a portable homeland, the world-citizenship of cosmopolitanism. What matters for the purposes of this essay is that one of them, Littin, responded to exile through the logic of resistance, forging the image of a people in struggle. And the other, Ruiz, responded very critically to what he called “the ideology of exile.”[14] [open endnotes in new window] By this he meant the idealization of the past, the fetishization of the nation, and the easy reliance on “popular memory” and folk culture as ways to establish a closer link with the people. These are all elements that can be associated with Littin’s cinema, and elements that Ruiz was highly suspicious of.

This contrast was also noted among critics at the time. In the review of Pesaro that preceded the published version of the Chilean “collective declaration” in Positif, Zuzana Pick articulated this confrontation quite well in her opening paragraph:

“Even if the X Mostra Internazionale del Nuovo Cinema de Pesaro, version 1974, opened with La tierra prometida by Miguel Littin (Chile, 1974), it isn’t perhaps until Dialogues of Exiles (1974) by Raúl Ruiz that we can realize the new meaning we should give to the struggles of liberation in Latin America. Because it is not enough for the revolution to pursue its course that survivors pick up the firearms of dead combatants, Raúl Ruiz shot last spring, in Paris, this Dialogue that is so much more than a film about the condition of Chilean exiles in France” (1974: 39).

Pick is making a reference here to the final sequences of Promised Land, in which Littin orchestrates a double “return of the heroes:” Chilean historical figures appear in the battleground to hand over a firearm to José—the peasant protagonist who had just been violently executed after leading a successful, however brief, takeover of a small town in the countryside. Later, José in turn hands over his arm to Chirigua, the younger man who survives him. In a kind of revolutionary passing of the mantle, the scene was meant to suggest that political struggles exist in a continuum and that the Chilean people have history on their side.

Pick’s remark already anticipates, as we shall see, the debate in Moscow in 1979. The central point of her critique was that historical conditions had changed, and therefore, the visual iconography and political rhetoric of yesteryear no longer sufficed. She suggested they must give way to new aesthetic strategies if the cultural struggle of liberation was to have any meaning at all in the future.

Moscow (1979)

“As an ideological concept, I prefer much more the definition of Cinema of Resistance than that of Exile Cinema” (“Orientación”: 120).

Miguel Littin voiced these words in the Soviet Union in 1979. The Moscow International Film Festival had invited a group of Chilean exile filmmakers and writers for a panel entitled “Orientation and Perspectives on Chilean Cinema.” Participants included novelist José Donoso and directors Jaime Barrios, Orlando Lübbert, and Miguel Littin, who came from Madrid, New York, East Berlin, and Mexico City, respectively. A few local figures, exiled in Moscow, joined the panel: director Sebastián Alarcón, cinematographer Cristián Valdés, journalist and former director of the Chile Films newsreel Eduardo Labarca, and novelist José Miguel Varas, who acted as a moderator. In fact, Littin’s words came as a response to Varas, who began by reminding everyone of José Donoso’s call to avoid the radical separation between those in Chile and those in exile—the need to insist that there was only one Chilean Cinema. Littin’s understanding of cinema as a practice of cultural struggle thus enabled him to bypass that odious distinction between inside and outside that exile necessarily signals by its very name.

By deeming the nature of his definition “ideological,” Littin acknowledged that a different ideological analysis of the historical condition known as exile would allow for an equally valid alternative definition of exile cinema. Nevertheless, his opening sentence elicited a back and forth discussion between him and Donoso. Right after the words quoted above, Littin went on to explain why there had never been an exilic cinema as “vigorous” as the Chilean one, for two reasons:

“the huge international solidarity movement and the fact that cinema [in Chile] was born committed to the popular cause” (“Orientación”: 121).

Donoso replied by stating that they cannot be slaves of a single topic:

“We can't keep doing for thirty or forty years of exile the film of the revolution or the film of torture. Our danger is to produce a pedagogic cinema and fail to take this great anger we feel as a starting point to open ourselves to the private life, the bureaucratic life, to the tragedy of exile” (122).

Littin argued back: the cinema that was born with a vocation of revolutionary cinema, with the people as its protagonist, cannot forget what happened in 1973 (123). The tone grew gradually harsher until they both settled the argument in a rather unexpected fashion: they concluded that there was in fact no disagreement since they were both saying the same thing.

But they weren’t.

A conceptual opposition was proposed at the beginning of this conversation. On one side, “resistance” would follow the politically committed tradition of the cinema produced during the Popular Unity and seek to further the idea of Third Cinema as a “guardian of popular memory,” as Teshome Gabriel once claimed.[15] On the other side, “exile cinema” would be a cinema that would eschew that commitment, avoid didacticism and explicit politics, and search for stories in individual rather than collective dramas. On the one hand, on the other.

It was, of course, a forced opposition that obscured a great deal of common ground. All participants in the roundtable ended up agreeing to several points: that the cinema produced in exile had opened up multiple and simultaneous aesthetics and themes, and that sustained political denunciation of the Junta and active support of the popular resistance in Chile were still urgent. At the same time they all recognized that there was an encroaching “exhaustion of material,” in the words of Sebastián Alarcón. Here, Alarcón argued that they needed to move from documentary to fiction and to allegory. He also complained that they were finding great difficulties, especially in capitalist countries, to convince producers to make films about Chilean politics.

But in spite of this general consensus, the words used throughout the discussion carried their heavy weight. “We were a rhetorical generation,” claimed Lübbert near the end, almost as an apology. To this Littin replied:

“I am not afraid of that word or of being didactic. It's just that everything is valid in our struggle against fascism” (“Orientación”: 130).

Political rhetoric produces its own meanings, hierarchies, and myths. Littin’s lexicon placed resistance as a political ideal of Chilean cinema at the same time that it used the term as a proxy for establishing a genealogy—one in which Chilean cinema was born with and out of the revolutionary process. Not only did such a distinction obliterate every film produced before the advent of what was called the “New Chilean Cinema” in the late 1960s, it also made irrelevant the enormous diversity of aesthetic and political projects that could fit under the rubric of a cinema committed “to the popular cause.”

And so we reach a dead end. Littin spoke of the ideology behind opposing an exilic cinema and favoring a cinema of resistance. And Ruiz, as we saw earlier, speaks of an ideology of exile to designate something very close to Littin’s ideology of resistance.

What is at stake in this opposition? Are these simply interchangeable terms? They can’t be simply interchanged because they do not refer to the same thing. In this entangled rhetoric, resistance and exile are both products of the military coup, but they offer two distinct understandings of the same historical situation. Opposed concepts, each designates a set of very different practices and beliefs.

For Chilean exile filmmakers, the rhetoric behind resistance sought to produce a cinematic equivalent of the social practices of political struggle that go by that name. Invoking resistance aimed to accomplish three goals:

An immersion in the drama of exile, on the other hand, was seen as a sign of failure. Here we find the seeds of what was to become another standard narrative: that the history of Chilean exile is also the transit from collectivity to individuality, from a politics expressed in the “we” to one expressed in the “I.” After the political defeat (and the mourning that came in its wake) all that was left was the individual subject. Within this narrative, the idea of the community vanishes in the dispersion of the diaspora. The first-person plural gives way to the first-person singular. Resistance gives way to exile.

The conceptualization of resistance that I have sketched above, however, implies a lag in the political temporality of the exile subject. Resistance is antithetical to exile in that the latter refers to the present conditions that define one's subjectivity. Everything in the rhetoric of resistance moves us from the present to the past. Its focus is on the Popular Unity, not exile. In short, resistance points towards the time when cinema was defined as a revolutionary art. It restores continuity to an aesthetic project and to a political temporality broken by the coup.

Here we need to recall Littin’s argument of historical acceleration. In Allende’s last months in power, the historical experience of the Chilean people was defined by velocity: important events would succeed each other in a matter of hours, not even days. But once in exile, their experience became defined by waiting: nothing happens because the only event that could happen would be the fall of the dictatorship, which would allow the exiles to return. So if the Popular Unity meant historical acceleration, resistance meant historical arrest. This need for detention is evidenced, aesthetically, in Chilean exile cinema’s almost ritualistic gesture of freezing the frames on leftist icons: fists, red flags, Allende’s close up, the presidential palace in flames. The freeze frame produces the sudden appearance of stasis in the continuum of the filmstrip while it also makes evident the breaks and discontinuities of historical time (as well as the radical rupture that the coup signifies). In these films, the freeze frame reminds us that the past extends itself into the present.

Reading the transcript of the Moscow debate, one gets the growing feeling that the participants knew that something had just changed or was changing in front of their eyes, but they could not state exactly what it was. The ready-made phrases proliferating in their language did not account for the depth of their own work or that of their fellow filmmakers. The concepts they were used to reiterate—solidarity, resistance, revolutionary cinema—did not describe the complexity of the historical crux in which they were: exile. That, no less, was the crisis: the ideological concepts Chilean exile filmmakers had clung to no longer sufficed.

The danger implicit in the rhetoric behind resistance was that the political might end up standing for an un-critical proliferation of leftist iconography and anti-imperialist lexicon, and nothing more. That is, political cinema would be reduced to iconic images or, even worse, to a platform from which to read formulaic declarations or statements.[16] Chilean exile filmmakers’ use of “exile cinema” was filtered through a lens of defeat—that was its danger. They failed to realize that a process of self-introspection (a radical questioning of the subjectivity of exiles) could coexist with the logic of political resistance. One did not exclude the other, and certainly, one did not come after the defeat of the other. In the rhetoric behind their critique of the turn to the private and the intimate, Chilean exile filmmakers also failed to realize that a first-person enunciation could be simultaneously singular and plural, individual and collective, subjective and historical.

As an ideological simplification, the rhetoric opposing resistance and exile soon collapses because it did not match the complexity of life under exile. To protect against this, the official rhetoric, paradoxically, joined the two terms together. There was no resistance without an invocation of solidarity and there was no exile without an invocation of resistance, even if Chilean filmmakers situated resistance and exile at opposite ends in their conceptualization of cinema as a political practice.

With this critique I don’t want to suggest that there is no proper exilic discourse in Chilean exile cinema during the 1970s—by which I mean a discourse that reflects simultaneously about the experience of uprootedness and the experience of making cinema in a different culture and under the umbrella of a foreign nation-state. Indeed, the production of such a discourse began soon after the coup. My point is that it was overshadowed by the more grandiloquent notion of resistance.


Chilean exile cinema’s moment of exhaustion at the end of the 1970s expressed itself as a rhetorical impasse, a standstill that took on the form of an opposition between “resistance” and “exile.” As I characterized it, “cinema of resistance” implied a lag in the temporality of the exile insofar as it insisted upon the political language and the militant aesthetics of the past in order to give meaning to the present. “Exile cinema,” in turn, implied a direct confrontation with the historical and cultural conditions defining that present. For the more dogmatic filmmakers, making an exile cinema and being an exile director put forward an unruly focus on the individual. Who was the exile person? What was, after all, being an exile? No wonder some saw it as a kind of failure: with its attention to the everyday dramas of intercultural life, with its concern for the pains and sorrows (and perhaps even for the small joys and benefits, what a heresy!) of uprootedness, exile cinema departed from the major goal of a cinema of resistance. This goal was to render the political community that had been defeated visible. Resistance implied the invocation of this community to make it present, whether to mourn or to celebrate it.

Exile cinema, in turn, was devoted to redirecting the object of mourning through the imaging of its present remains. Since archival footage of the people in the streets, the iconic murals, the revolutionary songs, the slogans in chants, and the political analysis codified by an anachronistic language had all lost their efficacy, such redirection, in order to get to the core of the exile experience, could only mean a turn inwards, a turn towards the exile subject.

The usage of resistance lost some of its prevalence among Chilean exile filmmakers in the latter part of the 1970s and the following decade.[17] But it did not disappear or exhaust itself; it resisted and persisted in important platforms for the circulation and critical reception of Chilean exile cinema. Two examples were the Havana Film Festival in 1979 (where The Battle of Chile won the documentary prize) and the Leipzig Film Festival in 1983 (with the special retrospective “Cinema in the Struggle for the Liberation of the Peoples—Chile”).

In this essay I have focused on programmatic and discursive platforms like film festivals and filmmakers’ meetings, with the understanding that a historical phenomenon like Chilean exile cinema cannot be limited to a study of its films alone. If festivals have been theorized in recent years as nodal points in the networks of transnational film production,[18] one can extend this to argue that they also served as key poles in the exilic “ciné-geography” [19] of Chilean cinema and became tools through which exile filmmakers navigated the fraught geopolitical space of the Cold War.

The meetings in Caracas, Pesaro, and Moscow allow us to follow the trajectory of an ideological exchange. Resistance, solidarity, and exile are not static terms; they move across different films, geopolitical spaces, and times. Following that movement, I want to suggest that discourses associated with these concepts were instrumental in producing the emergence of Chilean exile cinema and also its survival. Far from being exhausted by the end of the 1970s, the idea of resistance persisted not only in the tautological political rhetoric of filmmakers. It found new channels of expression in networks of solidarity where film festivals played a key role.

Il n’y a pas d’oubli, dirs. Rodrigo González, Marilú Mallet and Jorge Fajardo (Canada, 1975): Produced by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) in 1975, Il n’y a pas d’oubli was conceived as a coherent whole made of three independent medium length pieces directed by Chilean exile filmmakers: J'explique certaines choses by Rodrigo González, Lentement by Marilú Mallet, and Jours de fer by Jorge Fajardo. Each part develops its own aesthetics and its own thematic reflection about the condition of exile in general and the situation of Chilean exiles in Montreal in particular. The film constituted the best early example of an aesthetic, political, and historical reflection on exile. In their proposal to the NFB the filmmakers argued that exile was constituted by three phases: “the ghetto, subsistence, and integration—the moment in which exile is finally transformed into the quotidian.”
J'explique certaines choses, dir. Rodrigo González (Canada, 1975): Gonzalez’s piece addressed the phase of the “ghetto,” since it was devoted to the relations between a community of exiles that could only speak the language of the past. Lentement, dir. Marilú Mallet (Canada, 1975): Mallet’s film, with its focus on everyday life, spoke for the phase of “integration.”
Jours de fer, dir. Jorge Fajardo (Canada, 1975): Fajardo’s closing segment, focusing on the very first days of a man in Québec who starts a new job, represented the period of “subsistence.”