New York

The Battle of Chile

Film Forum

Although I think that The Battle of Chile is a stunningly conceived and brilliantly executed work of art, I know I am doing it an injustice by reviewing it under the condition of art, in this magazine. Its proper place is probably not here. I feel that I can “use” it because I can consider it both as high art and historical document. But what its true use might be in a Third World nation, as a meaning in a Third World culture, I am unable to judge. It is a film which can exist solely on the periphery in our culture, simply because it is Marxist, pro-working class, anti-imperialist and clearly subscribes to violent overthrow of any repressive government. In a backhanded way, one could say it is “aimed” at the United States: we are constantly being held up as archetypal enemies, fueling the fascist military and the strikers who help destroy the economy in socialist transformation under the Allende government. So we can feel guilty, as liberals, that the United States government, with the C.I.A. as its spearhead, aided in overthrowing a democratically elected government. But if we are the target, we are truly meant to be exposed and destroyed.

The main subtext of The Battle of Chile is found in its subtitle, which refers to the “unarmed people.” We are to understand from the start that socialist transformation can never take place, and will not take place in Chile, because the people are unable to fight for it. The democratic process functions only insofar as it protects the interests of the ruling class. This is how the whole film works: whatever we are shown, whatever is said, whatever we read, we are pointed toward this very fact: class struggle is armed struggle. After the military rifles through cemeteries supposedly looking for hidden weapon caches the people might have, working women state directly that if Allende is serious about people’s power, he had better give them guns to protect that emerging power. This movie is so in tune with what is going on among the people, with what they are thinking, that it refuses to mythologize Allende. Quite simply, the people elected him, and throughout the film the people seem to know more about their circumstances than Allende does. When, at workers’ meetings, a Left coalition says that miners must keep in mind the world monetary situation, and a number of other conditions which the workers think are conciliatory and diversionary, an unknown, unnamed miner gives a very long speech which is absolutely spellbinding. We are first of all amazed at his perfect ability to analyze his situation in political terms. There is the actual passion of the “performance”—the immediacy and urgency in this man is of someone who knows if the people are not given the chance to fight for their power they will never get it. Although the strict formal analogy to this passage would be one of the close-up long-take monologues in Godard’s late films, there is no hint of alienation, no “effect” and no boredom. One doesn’t care if it might affront bourgeois cultural values, since the whole film is pitched at a point that considers such things irrelevant.

I would have to search hard for a work of art so completely conscious of every meaning, every image, it presents. An incredibly long tracking shot over top military brass at the funeral of Allende’s closest military supporter is like a monumental elegy to Chile. The military men are like statues, stiff and unflinching. The camera settles on Allende, who is tired and distraught from months of fighting the rightist forces in the government, and he might be seen as bearing the entire weight of Chile’s future. Then we are told that the man standing next to him is Pinochet, the leader of the military coup. This dialectical shock—from the purely visual cinematic shot to the political and historical reality—is something of the way the whole film works (especially for those of us who tend to separate the formal elements from the content, which is traditionally acceptable in Western film).

Near the end of the first section, we are watching the militia taking potshots at demonstrators in the streets; the camera zooms in to a soldier in a truck, the soldier takes aim, and fires at the cameraman; the film image is frozen for a moment, and then goes to a fast blur as the cameraman falls dead. This sequence puts to shame every other supposedly “self-conscious” or reflexive act in art. In The Battle of Chile, at every turn, where the viewer might want to estheticize the film, the filmmakers seem to know quite well that the seductive image might interfere with immediate meaning; and, usually by the use of a voice-over text, head off any such reading by returning to the strict class analysis that places the incident in context, refusing to give it the self-sufficient existence of the isolated moment of art. There is an overhead shot of half a million people jumping up and down in huge, human waves; the text: “Jump if you’re not a fascist.” The people’s slogans and chants turn into actions and images which can be understood only for their revolutionary appeal.

We see the day-to-day workings of the government; we are out at the workers’ rallies; we are at the workplaces, listening to the people talk about their situation; we watch the Imperial Palace being bombed by planes. There is a lot of material, detail that I cannot begin to list. What we want to feel is overpowering sadness—this film is really about elegy. That’s what it turned out to be for the filmmakers; they thought they were filming the events of a revolutionary new society as it progressed through the structure of Western-type democracy. In the end, the film had to be smuggled out of the country; some of the crew is probably dead (as are probably some of the people who are interviewed). The intent of The Battle of Chile, however, is to instruct developing Third World countries in the reality of class struggle. Perhaps when the third and last part of this film is finished, the message and strategy of this struggle will be made clearer. But, in the meantime, The Battle of Chile overpowers every other art event whose historical moment it shares.

Jeff Perrone