The Battle of Chile

Over a black screen we hear the sound of gunfire and explosions.  The image which first appears is that of La Moneda Palace beneath clouds of smoke.  It is September 11, 1973 and right wing nationalists, having failed to remove socialist President Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity government with constitutional means, has resorted to a violent military coup, aided and abetted by Richard Nixon’s CIA, in “The Battle of Chile.”

Laura's Review: A

As the fiftieth anniversary of that day approaches, Icarus Films releases a 2K restoration of the landmark three part documentary by Patricio Guzmán, who continued to document the history of his country decades later in such works as “Nostalgia for the Light,” “The Pearl Button” and “The Cordillera of Dreams.”  “The Battle of Chile” comprises three separate films that can be seen as one whole.  They were directed by Guzmán while he was exiled in France, his footage and sound recordings having been smuggled out of Chile, and all are dedicated to cameraman Jorge Müller Silva, who along with his girlfriend was ‘disappeared’ under Pinochet’s regime.  (The b&w cinematography in all three films is outstanding, creating an immersive ‘you are there’ experience whether we are watching interviews on the streets, right wing efforts to paralyze the country with transportation strikes, Parliamentary proceedings or violence in the streets.)

1975’s “Part One, The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie,” is the one which begins at the end before laying out the lead up to the parliamentary vote two years into Allende’s presidency.  As Allende supporters march through the streets of Santiago changing ‘The left united will never be defeated,’ we hear various Chilean citizens predicting the outcome and after a handful of examples, it is easy to predict what each will say.  The Nationalists are absolutely convinced they will win a great victory (shades of the 2022 ‘red wave’), needing 60% in order to impeach Allende, and on the eve of the vote some right wing media outlets declare them the victor, leading to parades of automobiles celebrating in the streets.  The final results, though, show that not only has the Popular Unity party stayed its course, it’s added support.  (While Guzmán never names Nixon or Kissinger, we hear continual references to the ‘North American government’ and the ‘White House,’ which reportedly spent millions on the Nationalists’ campaign.)

The Nationalists then form a coalition with the Christian Democrats as Eduardo Frei, a Christian Democrat and former president is elected head of the Senate.  Their agenda will be the economic strangulation of Chile.  The Fascist Homeland and Freedom movement takes off, promoting violence and social chaos.  Well-to-do Catholic University students agitate for the right and, in a bit of political irony, the wealthy support striking mine workers, yet Allende’s Popular Unity workers keep buses running and the copper mines, 20% of Chile’s economy, operating.  The Nationalist provoked strikes end of June 28.  On June 29th, the military attacks the presidential palace.  Guzmán ends Part One with one of the most chilling bits of documentary footage in existence, Argentinean cameraman Leonardo Henrichsen capturing his own murder, his camera tumbling to the street after he’s shot.

1976’s Part Two, “The Coup D’Etat,” begins by repeating those final moments of Part One, when a single regiment with six tanks attacked the palace.  The military itself is not united, Guzmán showing Allende’s Minister of Defense Prats walking alongside General Pickering with Pinochet in tow.  Christian Democrats voice their support while the Nationalists stay silent.  Allende addresses the nation.  Right wing voices saying nothing (and sounding very familiar to American ears today) ‘debate’ on Channel 13, but as the left wavers in its response, the tide slowly turns, the Christian Democrats basically demanding Allende cede his power in order to stay in office.  Allende proposes a 9/11 plebiscite, or national vote, to settle the political standoff, but it never comes to pass – by 2:15 p.m. on that day he is dead.

1978’s Part Three, “The Power of the People,” is not a continuation of the history of Pinochet’s reign, but almost an addendum to Part One and the shortest of the three films.  It begins 18 months after Allende has nationalized Chile’s iron and copper industries and is largely comprised of interviews with Allende supporters all happily working toward a brighter future for Chile while the U.S. tries to curtail that success by ceasing to send spare parts for machinery, etc.  Popular Unity proudly rebuilds its own using old equipment.  Economically efficient industrial belts form.  In order to combat runaway price gouging (shopkeepers being decidedly Nationalist), direct distributions are formed, feeding half the population of Santiago.  The workers talk about how the ‘mummies’ (Nationalists) wish to keep them ignorant and apolitical.  But when Allende names military leaders to his cabinet, we only see one worker expressing fear that this will prove anti-democratic, hoping it is temporary.

If ever there was a case for studying history to understand the present, “The Battle of Chile” is it.  ‘History is a vast early warning system.’ – Norman Cousins, editor Saturday Review.

Robin's Review: A-

I remember, back in 1973, when the right-wing military in Chile, under General Augusto Pinochet and with the assistance of the CIA, overthrew the democratically, socialist-inclined government of Salvador Allende. The coup was bloody and brutal and put the country under the iron-fisted control of the junta for over 17 years.

Back then, documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzman and his team of camera people, chronicled the events leading up to the coup, the violence that gripped the country under the new dictatorship and the wrap up of those events in a 4+ hour, 3-part showing of the before and after of the coup that overthrew the democratically-elected Allende government in Chile.

This is a hefty-sized documentary that will not likely attract the casual film-goer. But, for film buffs out there, especially fans of documentary movies like me, this detailed telling of that world-shaking event is like mother’s milk. I am very familiar with those events and sickened by what transpired.

Guzman, though, does not dwell on the horrendous aftermath of that overthrow, where thousands of innocent people were “disappeared” by the new military government. The concentration of the story he tells is on the events leading to the coup, the public support for Allende and his experiment in socialism and the negative reaction by the military players to that experiment.

“The Battle of Chile,” despite the dated look of a 70’s documentary, has a currentness to it that makes it fresh to this day. As I said, I am very familiar with the overthrow and the events leading up to it. Guzman, though, goes into great detail with Part 1 showing the progressive, people-oriented work by the Allende government to take the power back from the multinational corporations and put it in the hands of the Chilean people.

Part 2 covers the coup itself and the violence it would cause for the people by a military that wanted total power – and took it. Part 3 is more of an epilogue to the document, repeating much of what we learned in the concise wrap-up of those events.

Oh, yeah, Guzman does also point the blame of the coup on the involvement of the United States government in its active participation in support of the right wing junta and its subsequent brutal treatment of the Chilean people.

Icarus Films releases the three part 2K restoration of "The Battle of Chile" on 9/8/23 at BAM in New York City.  It will also be featured in the Harvard Film Archive's Chile Year Zero program beginning 9/9/23.