Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzmán has spent much of his 50-plus-year career grappling with a single moment: the 1973 coup d’état that ousted then-president Salvador Allende. The coup, supported by the United States to stop Allende’s leftist reforms, ushered in decades of brutal military rule in Chile under Augusto Pinochet. At different times in his films, Guzmán has acted as a direct witness, a chronicler of oral histories, and an investigator into these events and their aftermath. His newest feature, My Imaginary Country, arrives at a very different political moment for Chile. 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.
Guzmán has always had a personal stake in Chile’s political fortunes. As a burgeoning filmmaker, he was an idealistic admirer of Allende. His debut feature, 1972’s The First Year, followed the early days of the socialist leader’s administration. At that time he struck up a correspondence with filmmaker Chris Marker, who advised him, “When you want to film a fire, you must be ready at the place where the first flame would appear.” Only a year later, Guzmán put this into practice in the streets, when he documented the coup, the protests against it, and the police and military crackdown on them. That footage became the basis of his magnum opus, the three-part The Battle of Chile (1975-79). In the decades since, even as the Chilean government has gradually reformed, Guzmán has continued to look back. Salvador Allende (2004) pays tribute to the fallen president and the lost dreams of his movement. Most notable is his trilogy on the lingering trauma of the dictatorship years, in which each installment analogizes these traumas to a different element of Chile’s geography: the Atacama Desert (2011’s Nostalgia for the Light), the Pacific Ocean (2015’s The Pearl Button), and the Andes Mountains (2019’s The Cordillera of Dreams).
Against this personal and collective history of pain and repression, My Imaginary Country becomes all the more poignant for its portrait of hope and new social revolution. Guzmán documents the 2019-20 Chilean protests (the Estallido Social, as the movement is called there) and then the political upheavals that took place in their wake. While he wasn’t in Chile when the protests started, even in his late 70s and early 80s he continues to follow Marker’s advice. Once again his cameras are in the streets, though with much more portable and flashy technology than he had in the 1970s. In one dynamite sequence a drone follows an armored police car as it sprays tear gas down an avenue, with defiant protestors hurling stones and bricks at the vehicle as it passes. But the film’s intimate interviews with people on the streets — sometimes still clad in anonymizing masks — prove even more stirring. They are students agitating for fairer conditions, feminists fighting rape and anti-choice culture, and a broader coalition of those fed up with the status quo. In the youthful energy of protestors, street medics, and activist artists, Guzmán finds echoes of what once inspired him in the days of Allende.
Things continue to change rapidly in Chile, and external events have already dampened some of the hope expressed in My Imaginary Country. Much of the film concerns the process bringing a new, much more progressive constitution for the country to a vote; since that time, the vote has happened, and the constitution has been shot down. It does not feel like a refutation of the documentary’s sentiments, however. Guzmán is not so foolish as to think that all his country’s problems are over. This is but another stumbling block in a long, hard road. The title alludes to the slippery nature of a nation-state, and how concrete change can come only when people collectively imagine something better that they can work toward. If a better imaginary Chile could lead the nation to survive Pinochet in actuality, then the country can survive its new trials as well.
My Imaginary Country is currently playing in select theaters.