Armed only with a camera

12 February 1999

One of the greatest documentaries ever made is to be given a rare screening in Britain. John Pilger reveals how The Battle Of Chile records Pinochet's crimes against humanity.

The documentary film struggles to survive. In the United States, it has all but disappeared from the mainstream. In this country, the docu-soap is put forward as a counterfeit alternative. The justification is the Murdoch one, that the public is interested only in a moving belt of patronage, trivia and false emotion. Yet when a documentary breaks a silence and challenges authorised wisdom, elevating its audience almost to participants, people respond in their thousands. Next week, there is a rare opportunity to see such a documentary: in my view, one of the finest ever made.

This is Patricio Guzman's The Battle Of Chile: The Fight Of An Unarmed People, an epic of reportage on the events that extinguished democracy in Chile in 1973, to be shown at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in London. "How," asked the New Yorker critic Pauline Kael when the film was released in the late seventies, "could a team of five, some with no previous film experience, working with limited equipment (one Eclair camera, one Nagra sound recorder, two vehicles) and a package of black-and-white film stock sent to them from France produce a work of this magnitude?"

The answer is that sheer talent, commitment and energy won out - though at a price. In Guzman's sequel, Chile, Obstinate Memory, we learn that after the film was smuggled abroad, the cameraman, Jorge Muller, was arrested and taken to a "torture camp", where he "disappeared" until his grave was found years later. He was 27. "He preferred to go to the beach than to demonstrations," says a friend. "He talked about clothes and girls... it was all part of his charm."

The brilliance of his work, its hand-held choreography and grace, cannot be overstated; he is a reporter and a sculptor. There is a scene at the funeral of Salvador Allende's loyal aide-de-camp, a naval officer murdered by the far right at the urging of the CIA, where the camera moves among the attendant military brass in their braid and ribbons, coiffed hair and opaque eyes. There is a menacing, almost sepulchral stillness about them; and from that moment on you know that you are watching the funeral of a society. Later, following the bombing of the presidential palace and Allende's death, the camera again pans along the living death masks of Augusto Pinochet and his collaborators as they toll the end of democracy. The Law Lords should see this and hear Pinochet's tinny little voice announcing that the army is taking over the judiciary "until further orders".

The Battle Of Chile is in two parts. It is unfortunate that part one, The Insurrection Of The Bourgeoisie (1975), will not be shown at the festival. This traces the rise of rightwing opposition to Allende's socialist government following the left's victory in congressional elections in March, 1973 and the embrace of fascism by many of the middle class. The American embargo is now in full force and the economy is in grave difficulty. The public transport system disintegrates as spare parts are denied.

Knowing his political enemies have the power of the gun and the US behind them, Allende prevaricates, seeking coalitions and resorting to extraordinary popular demonstrations. At one rally he exhorts the crowd, "Jump if you're not a fascist!" and half a million people jump. It is an image as unforgettable as the one that follows: an Argentinian cameraman films an army patrol skirmishing with demonstrators. We see through his lens a helmeted soldier take slow, careful aim and kill him.

Part two, The Coup d'Etat, begins with the attempted military coup in June, 1973, which is put down by troops "loyal to the constitution". For Pinochet, then regarded as a constitutionalist, and the other generals, this serves as a useful rehearsal for the final act. As soldiers raid factories looking for arms, divisions open up in the popular front, with the communists opposed to workers' occupations and worried about the "international image" of the government.

Open debate in mass meetings is notoriously difficult to film, especially with one camera, yet Guzman succeeds with a quality and verve that puts you next to the speaker while your eyes travel to other faces, almost reading their thoughts. I have not seen anything quite like it. Guzman ensures that we are not merely witnesses; we share the experience. It is a reminder of what is missing from our television screens, night after night as the orthodox lens peers sheepishly over the shoulders of the managers of power, almost never from the other side.

In Guzman's film, there is much that goes unexplained; the evidence of Washington's complicity is not fully documented, as if that is for another film and, anyway, the narrative cannot wait to catch up with the unfolding struggle. This is not to say detail is left out. The dilemmas of the Allende years are examined at a meeting where a worker calls for the expropriation of every factory in the country. A trade union official points out that several are owned by Swiss companies, and the Swiss are influential in the Club of Paris, which determines how Chile repays its debt. If the debt is increased, this will place an intolerable burden on the government as it fights for survival. "Let us not worry about the international scene," someone replies, "Let us worry about here and now."

A united front, the arming of the people, the legality of their actions, the government's hesitance - these are debated by working people with an articulateness, often eloquence, seldom seen on film. Hearing them speak politically and directly to the camera is a strange experience. Apart from Ken Loach's work, I cannot recall anything remotely similar made in this country.

Guzman is unsparing as he follows the spiral of Allende's disastrous attempts to find common ground with the opposition. When the truck operators bring the country to a halt, Allende offers the Christian Democrats five places in the government, and their refusal is his humiliation.

Muller's camera is at their fated meeting, tracing the contours of faces, revealing the freemasonry of deception, lies and false hope. Pinochet is brought into the government; in his shadow are 250 terrorist groups backed by Washington. Almost everything now is backed by Washington. The CIA finances the truck operators' strike; William Colby, the CIA director who ran the terrorism of Operation Phoenix in Vietnam, pointedly refuses to deny that the invisible hand is his. A popular television channel broadcasts anti-government bile; it is run by the Ford Foundation. At sea, American warships make contact with the Chilean navy. The thud-thud of the rotors of Huey military helicopters, the sickening sound of Vietnam, becomes a drum beat towards the inevitable.

For me, the film's climax is not the end of Allende and the nightmare that followed, but the huge, sad, almost valedictory demonstration by 800,000 defenceless people as they file past the president, shouting, "Allende, Allende, the people will defend you!" and "Allende, don't worry, the people are with you!" As Guzman and Muller went with them, I was deeply moved, as I was by the display of personal bravery by Allende when the end came on September 11, 1973. After releasing his guards, his voice is heard, rising and falling in the static of the last free frequency: "I am not going to give up. I shall repay the loyalty of the people with my life. History is ours and it is made by the people..."

Guzman returned from exile in 1996 with one of Allende's bodyguards, Juan, who stayed with him in the presidential palace as it was bombed. September 11, 1973 was meant to be Juan's wedding day. He was shot in the stomach, and imprisoned, before fleeing to exile. Now disguised as a member of Guzman's film crew, he walks where his best friends and Allende died. Memory and its burial is Guzman's theme in the film. He has brought with him copies of The Battle Of Chile so that his friends and comrades can finally see it and he can show it to a new generation (the film remains banned in Chile). Despite Chile's return to a nominal democracy, the military remains powerful and leading criminals like Pinochet are protected from prosecution. So it is not surprising the demons of 1973 remain.

In the opening scenes of Obstinate Memory we see a group of young musicians walking through Santiago, playing the long banned anthem of the Unidad Popular. Passers-by stop in disbelief. They have not heard this for almost a quarter of a century. Faces stiffen, eyes moisten. A man cautiously makes a victory sign, then hurries away, shaking his head. As memory returns, so does grief. In a friend's flat, Guzman plays the grainy black and white images to old comrades, who recognise themselves and those dragged off to the National Stadium and never seen again. "Look, there is Carmen!" says one, as the camera moves across a defiant, beautiful young woman. When Guzman finds her, he is confronted by almost another person. She is rigid, contained, her face skeined grey; no one can know her grief. "My husband, my brother, my son, my sister-in- law, my nephew," she intones, "all disappeared!"

Guzman shows his film to students who have grown up "with memory banned". At first, their confusion is like a presence; then the mood changes and one girl says, "I feel proud of my people". And they cry, as if the repressed feelings of a whole society are at last finding expression. "The truth is replaced by silence," wrote the Soviet dissident Yevgeney Yevtushenko, "and the silence is a lie." The Battle Of Chile breaks a silence; and we owe a debt of gratitude to the film-maker and his collective of five, all of whom were interned.

Their film is about a tragedy and a crime, but it is also a celebration of a truth - that the universal phenomenon of resistance continues, that defeats at the hands of raw power, as in Chile and other countries subjected to western economic and military terrorism, have not been failures of their political and economic experience; on the contrary, popular democracy, health and education under Allende were highly successful.

To say that this alternative model "failed", as post-cold war propaganda would have us believe, is like saying that Hitler's destruction of western European democracies was a "failure of democracy". The Hitlers and Pinochets and their Faustian pals have their long day, but they never endure.

For those of us who make documentaries, Guzman's searing work is reaffirmation that the blood, sweat and tears of ordinary people gave us the form, and our allegiance is due to them.

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library