Film

Turning the Andes Into a Metaphor for Chile’s History of Political Oppression

With The Cordillera of Dreams, director Patricio Guzmán closes out a trilogy of documentaries in which he’s used Chile’s landmarks as points of inquiry into the nation’s past.

From The Cordillera of Dreams (courtesy Pyramide Films)

“I have always felt that time passes more slowly in Chile,” says Patricio Guzmán early in The Cordillera of Dreams (La Cordillera de los sueños), which premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The latest film by the Chilean-born, Paris-based director is positioned as the final installment in a trilogy that also includes his late-career triumphs Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia de la Luz, 2010) and The Pearl Button (El botón de nácar, 2015). Like them, this film uses Chile’s natural beauty as a starting point for a reflection on the country’s past and present, including the scars of Augustino Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship and its attendant murders, disappearances, and forced exiles. Working with an essayist blend of original and archival footage, interviews, and voiceover, The Cordillera of Dreams is explicitly concerned with the passage of time, and how such distance serves to both forestall justice for the crimes of the past and risk supporting their reemergence.

In each film in the trilogy, Guzmán turns a famous feature of Chile into a central metaphor. In Nostalgia for the Light, it was the Atacama Desert and the skies above them, and in The Pearl Button it was the Pacific Ocean. Here it is the Andes mountain range (cordillera), which straddles Chile’s border with Argentina and occupies 80% of the country’s geography. What better way to attempt to comprehend and represent a period of political violence with an estimated 40,000 victims than through something of such scale? While the first two films represented the unknown and ambiguous with the seemingly endless nature of space and the ocean, in The Cordillera of Dreams, Guzmán inverts that metaphor. The Andes are a site of time and history that remains present, layered, and visible, if not always legible. “I believe the mountain is a witness,” he says at one point. That act of witnessing serves as a central thread of the film.

From The Pearl Button (courtesy Pyramide Films)

That includes Guzmán’s own role as a witness, one both present and absent. Distance is evoked throughout, whether in terms of the time that has elapsed since he first took to the streets to film the violence of the military takeover in his classic The Battle of Chile (La Batalla de Chile, 1973-1975), or in terms of actual geographical space. “Every time I pass over the Cordilleras, I feel I’m arriving at the country of my childhood,” he narrates, negotiating his position as a Chilean who hasn’t lived there for decades.

Elsewhere, he moves beyond metaphor to consider the physicality of the mountains themselves. Reflections on the grass and wind of the vast region are paired with explicit mentions of the extraction of resources by foreign entities. It’s a continuation of 40 years of neoliberalism which was first initiated by Pinochet’s drastic acts of privatization and Chicago-style economics.

In each film in Guzmán’s trilogy, he returns to tools and techniques of visualization as points of inquiry, both scientific and artistic. In Nostalgia for the Light, emphasis is placed on the ability to render the inaccessible legible to the human eye, particularly via the massive telescopes that produce the film’s grand representations of the Solar System. Elsewhere he focuses on an astronomical tool handcrafted by a former prisoner of the Pinochet regime, suggesting that acts of seeing can double as acts of resistance. Throughout both The Pearl Button and The Cordillera of Dreams, Guzmán questions the ways in which documentary material is unstable and holds the potential for political intervention. In the former, this is achieved through archival photographs of Indigenous Chileans, with Guzmán and his interlocutors reading against the ethnographic or exploitative context of their production. This new film interrogates how a camera can capture one version of reality, but its material can be read through divergent viewpoints.

From The Cordillera of Dreams (courtesy Pyramide Films)

Guzmán incorporates interviews throughout The Cordillera of Dreams, predominantly with artists (and almost exclusively with men, an unfortunate decision also shared by the other works in the trilogy). Their discussions of their work illustrate various types of witness, from abstract painting and sculpture to documentary filmmaking. Chief among them is videographer Pablo Salas, who has filmed protests and other events in Chile from the 1980s through the present. Interviewed in his studio, surrounded by cassette tapes, his archive exists as his own mountain range, a site where history is stored and available, but risks being forgotten.

Excerpts of Salas’s cassettes are shown, and they make for some of the documentary’s most striking moments. Images of protesters blasted by water cannons and other acts of violence hint at the even more severe atrocities that took place out of sight of cameras. It grounds the repeated questioning of history in the violence that remains unatoned for. For Guzmán and Salas, the official history is less an ignorance of the facts than a callous a reinterpretation of them. It’s here, and through sequences of recent protests captured by Salas on the same streets as in the 1980s, that The Cordillera of Dreams moves from ponderous to urgent. If time seems to pass more slowly in Chile, according to Guzmán, it is because vital questions have lost none of their relevance.

From Nostalgia for the Light (courtesy Pyramide Films)

The Cordillera of Dreams is currently awaiting theatrical release. Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button are both available on various streaming platforms.

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