After his first film, the secretly shot and less-than-secretly confiscated Not to Forget (1982), Ignacio Agüero moved on to an existential question: Was cinema possible in Pinochet’s Chile? The question was no small matter; to him, filmmaking was scarcely divisible from the political moment. So he started to poke around film sets, putting the question to other directors still in Chile — many, like Raul Ruiz, had taken the long road to exile — setting out on a sort of review of film in the time of dictatorship. Where was Chile and what future was it headed toward? What cinematic record of life and the crimes of oppression could one make there? The result was an almost quixotically optimistic documentary, This Is the Way I Like It (1985). The state’s response, once again, was censorship.
Agüero had answers, though: Film was still possible, still meaningful, and evidently still important enough to warrant suppression. (Oddly, for such a contemplative filmmaker, Agüero’s films have been routinely censored.) He never stopped making films, in any case, going on to conceive and create some of the political ads for the 1988 “No” campaign that helped bring about the end of the Pinochet regime, the events of which were themselves dramatized in the film No. It’s nice to think that the ads vindicated Agüero’s questions and his commitment to Chile and film, but it was certainly not a one-off effort. Thirty years later, after the initial muffled release of This Is the Way I Like It and more than a decade after Pinochet’s fall, Agüero revived his concept to make a rather unusual, unlikely sequel.
Playing at Film Society of Lincoln Center’s ever-revealing Art of the Real series, This Is the Way I Like It II (2016) is a playful, entangled follow-up. It treads some of the same ground as the original (visiting, for example, Pablo Larraín on the set of Neruda), but Agüero just can’t seem to help himself from zigging and zagging into memory and daydreams, circling around the future of cinema and Chile as well as its past. He richly crumples the straightforward approach of the film’s predecessor, slipping in footage from his family’s home movies and his own films, diverging into long, musing shots of the countryside and children watching films. These digressions, his questions (now more philosophical: “What is the essence of cinema?”), and their answers don’t seem to be important for what they say so much as the wider web of connections and possibilities they help to stir, as if he is always asking: What are you thinking about?
Also screening at this year’s Art of the Real is an earlier documentary by Agüero, The Other Day (2013) — which is one of Agüero’s films that appears in This Is the Way I Like It II — and two films by José Luis Torres Leiva, The Sky, the Earth, and the Rain and The Wind Knows That I’m Coming Back Home. Taken together, they form a kind of Chilean cinema sidebar, but this is no random quartet of films; there are just too many interconnections for that. One of the film sets Agüero visits in This Is the Way I Like It II is Leiva’s The Wind Knows, and during their wink-nod conversation, Leiva explains to Agüero that he (Leiva) is filming a documentary about him (Agüero). Years earlier, Agüero heard a story about a young couple who disappeared into the woods on Meulín Island and had the idea to make a documentary on the matter. He eventually abandoned the project, but as Agüero interviews Leiva, it becomes clear that they are in both in the process of making a movie on that story, Agüero working on his first fiction film and Leiva creatively documenting it. It all begs the question: Where does Agüero the person end and Agüero the filmmaker begin?
As The Other Day shows, this blurriness can be a problem. Its central conceit (sort of) is that Agüero goes to visit those who have visited him at his home, but it’s really a film with two main parts. One is the “you knock on my door, I can knock on yours” premise he explains to others in the film, telling them he’s making a documentary about people who stop by — mail carriers, job seekers, people asking for money — and the other is domestic reverie. Filming the sunlight lolling through his home, The Other Day opens with Agüero agog. In one long lovely shot after another, he conjures a beautiful, evocative dreamland out of light, mirrors, tables, and books. On one day in particular — the titular “other day” — he is astonished by the way the sun throws a spotlight onto a picture of his parents, awakening in him a strange new concern. Who are these people in this photo? he wonders. What do I really know about them? Later sequences began to sneak from his home to archival footage of the sea, as Agüero portrays himself as a dreamer adrift.
Inevitably, these wistful musings are interrupted by the doorbell, which brings Agüero to that other premise: asking these visitors if he can film them at their homes. But once he gets there, the liberality of his inner world seems dwarfed by the rote rapport he has with these fellow Chileans whose lives he brings his camera into. His questions are rather bland, his curiosity pretty dim; the visitors seem to open their doors more to him than he did to them. But this is, most likely, more a problem of concept and execution than a problem of heart. (Buried in the ending credits is some evidence to this effect: One of his visitors, a film major looking for work, was hired to create the credits.)
Furthermore, This Is the Way I Like It II doesn’t suffer from this problem. Searching, playful, and giving, it asserts that Agüero’s work has expanded and deepened with age. On the other end of dictatorship and three decades older, his films play with cinema, memory, and history — layering person, place, things, and dreams, complicating what it’s like to be on the other side, looking back. For Agüero, there’s so much that is lost, but also so much that is waiting to be found.
Art of the Real continues at Film Society of Lincoln Center (165 W. 65th Street, Midtown) through May 2. This Is the Way I Like It II and The Wind Knows That I’m Coming Back Home screen on April 26; The Other Day and The Sky, the Earth, and the Rain on April 27.