Throughout the 2010s, Chilean cinema has become aware of its position and importance in world culture, with two Academy Awards and many festival awards serving as the most visible signposts of its ascendance. Chile released more films during these ten years than ever before, with many of them making their way to local commercial theaters. But beyond this expansion, the landscape of Chilean film has become more diverse and exciting to chronicle. And documentary filmmakers have been at the country’s subversive and experimental forefront.
Patricio Guzmán, maybe the most famous Chilean nonfiction director, explored a new aesthetic approach with a trilogy of films that contrasted elements of nature with the crimes committed by Pinochet’s dictatorship. In Nostalgia de la Luz (2010), he compared searching for new stars with searching for the bodies of the disappeared. In El Botón de Nácar (2015), he explores the depths of the ocean to look for those who were thrown from helicopters. And in La cordillera de los sueños (2019), he compares the political legacy of the dictatorship to the geological markings of the Andes.
As fascinating and gorgeous as Guzmán’s trilogy is, the films still follow a mostly systematic approach, utilizing talking heads, beautiful inserts, narration, etc. To find a more horizontal approach, look to the work of Carolina Adriazola and José Luis Sepúlveda. The pair changed Chilean cinema forever with their debut El pejesapo (2007), a documentary-fiction hybrid that shocked audiences with its rough and upfront portrayal of sex and violence. In 2014’s Crónica de un comité, a committee for justice is formed to look into the case of Manuel Gutiérrez, a 16-year-old who was killed by police in 2011. Adriazola and Sepúlveda give cameras to Manuel’s brother Gerson and several other family members so they can chronicle their struggle themselves. They prioritize the subjects’ self-register over their own authorial touch. Similarly, in Harley Queen (2019), the eponymous stripper addresses her rivals via Facebook Live and shoots her own night vision footage during amateur ghost hunts. All of this material is used to create a fascinating portrait of extreme poverty in one of Santiago’s most impoverished barrios.
But the most boundary-pushing nonfiction is being made by Camila José Donoso and Nicolás Videla. In Naomi Campbel (2013), they follow Paula Dinamarca, a trans woman who participates in a reality TV show to pay for gender confirmation surgery. While the film is seemingly fictional, most of the details come from Dinamarca’s real life — her house, her neighbors, her relationships. There’s even footage she made of herself alone at home, drunk and screaming about the injustices of the world.
A similar approach is used in Videla’s solo follow-up, El Diablo es magnífico (2016), which focuses on Manu Guevara, a transgender Chilean migrant living in Paris. The film avoids most of the clichés of LGBTQ drama by celebrating trans romance and life. It is not without its pains, but mostly told through moments of glory. Donoso’s own latest solo project, Nona (2019), a long-gestating project shot on both film and digital over many years, focuses on her grandmother, mixing her personal life story with fictionalized elements, as well as documentary footage of wildfires that ravaged the Valparaíso region a few summers ago.
It’s through mixing primary and constructed elements that these films speak to Chilean identity and struggle, particularly in the current moment. By directly telling real people’s stories or letting them tell these stories themselves, such films can explain how inequality and neoliberalism have damaged the souls of unprivileged Chileans (which is practically anyone who doesn’t belong to the top 10%). With the current uprising in Chile, it remains to be seen how its cinema will shift as well. Fiction will have to come to terms with its complicity with the status quo, and will hopefully stop trying to tell stories without looking directly at who inspires them.
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Patricio Guzmán combines reflection on the past, observation of the present, and hope for the future into an expansive vision of all the ideas he’s explored in his work.
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