On 3 November 1970, Salvador Allende, a Marxist physician, took office as the president of Chile. He would lead the Popular Unity coalition of Socialist, Communist, Radical and Social-Democratic parties with the support of other dissident groups. In 1971, Patricio Guzmán made The First Year, a documentary covering the first twelve months of Allende’s term. The young Guzmán’s film so impressed Chris Marker that he secured its release in France. Marker would later contribute film stock for Guzmán’s The Battle of Chile, which charts Allende’s final year in office. Allende and his coalition sought to expand worker’s rights and to nationalise certain industries, a move which caught the attention of then US President Dick Nixon. The CIA, with Nixon’s approval, organised secret operations in Chile with an eye towards discrediting and toppling the democratically elected leftist government. This culminated in the military coup d’état of 11 September 1973 and the installation of Augusto Pinochet at the head of a violently repressive state.
Guzmán is most known for films documenting the fight both for human rights and against the culture of political amnesia. Nostalgia for the Light (2010) is first a documentary about stellar observatories in the Atacama Desert. The dry conditions and clear skies over the Atacama make it ideal for studying the stars. While astronomers search for distant objects, women search the sands tirelessly for the remains of loved ones killed by Pinochet’s regime. These historical arcs, these archaeologies of time and place mark Guzmán’s thinking. The military junta would rule until 1990. Yet, Chileans live under a constitution written in 1980 under the auspices of Pinochet.
On 18 October 2019, after the announcement of a 30 peso rise in train fare, students began spontaneous demonstrations which would erupt into massive regional uprisings. President Sebastián Piñera would declare a state of emergency, with military units taking the streets in a familiar echo of the Pinochet years. My Imaginary Country opens with images, taken from The First Year, of Allende supporters lining the streets. The first contemporary images in My Imaginary Country are of rough stones littering the ground. Groups of protestors are next shown tearing up paving stones which are then passed along into the hands of those on the frontlines, who hurl them at armoured police vehicles. Most striking – and most globally resonant – is the sheer vulnerability of the protestors. Chile’s is a politicised, militarised police force. The people throw stones, the State, with demonstrative, instinctual indifference, fires riot guns.
The first interviewee speaks from behind ski goggles and a gas mask. She wears flowers on her head saying that with the revolt, she has herself blossomed. Removing her goggles, she faces the camera in extreme close-up, her eyes staring through you into the future. What saves this from cliché is the conviction in those eyes. You cannot but believe her. Later, journalist Mónica González says: “There are flames that consume and flames that nourish.” The “marvellous chaos” of the uprising is directed at exploitation and precarity. It is a fight for dignity, with a particularly feminist articulation. Each of Guzmán’s interview subjects are women. They are writers and mothers, photographers and first aid workers, activists and academics. They fight for fairer pensions, the right to housing, wider access to education; to put it precisely, they fight for the generations to come. In the words of the interdisciplinary colectivo LASTESIS: “It’s not my fault/it’s not the place/it’s not my clothes/the rapist is you.” The immense energies corralled by the uprising are directed towards an elitist, patriarchal centralism, working within a military dictator’s legislative framework.
My Imaginary Country plays a trick peculiar to cinema. Replete, as it is, with images from the Chilean protests, with all the anger and desire suggested by political struggle, Guzmán’s film feels urgent. He covers an array of events up to the election of Gabriel Boric as president in March 2022. My Imaginary Country premiered at Cannes in May of that year. Much of the later portions of the film explores the founding of Open Councils fighting for radical change. A referendum is held during which 80% of voters call for the organisation of a Constituent Assembly tasked with the drafting of a new, pluralistic constitution. On 4 September 2022, voters rejected the proposed document created by the Assembly we see setting to work at the end of the film. The immediacy Guzmán creates is undercut by an awareness of later developments, though this in no way counteracts Guzmán’s achievement.
What is vital in My Imaginary Country is not the success or failure of any individual action, but rather the incessant call to a politics of memory. The final images in the film are of the same stones we see at the start, the stones hurled at the militarised police. The future Chile, Guzmán’s imaginary country, is built with those stones. The imagination articulates acts of creation, never of fantasy. Images from The First Year also play alongside a portion of the closing credits. This rhyming structure identifies struggle as that which is always already in need of revival. What the uprisings achieved is not merely political, but socio-cultural in nature. It is a question of ethics, of “civic-mindedness.” Guzmán documents a sustained thinking through of the necessity of fundamental change. The Chileans who speak to Guzmán are tired of having to pay for healthcare, for education, for everything. They are sick of people getting rich on the back of the poor. Theirs is a “violent rupture, full of joy.”