Idealism Rules in Patricio Guzmán’s Chile

The exiled filmmaker’s latest work is a passionate—if incomplete—account of the 2019 estallido and its aftermath.

By , the social media editor at Foreign Policy.
My Imaginary Country connects Chile's complex history to contemporary revolutionary social movements and the election of a new president.
My Imaginary Country connects Chile's complex history to contemporary revolutionary social movements and the election of a new president.
My Imaginary Country connects Chile's complex history to contemporary revolutionary social movements and the election of a new president. Icarus Films

For many within Chile and in its diaspora, the Chilean imagination is defined by memory: how it is created, how it is disappeared, and how it is passionately rekindled. This was thrown into stark relief during the October 2019 to March 2020 estallido social, or “social explosion,” when record-breaking anti-government protests overtook the country. Demonstrations were triggered by a 30-peso ($0.04) hike in metro fares and grew to target economic inequality, corruption, and systemic human rights abuses that date back to the era of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

For many protesters, those 30 pesos symbolized 30 years’ worth of social discontent that had been brewing since the end of Pinochet’s rule in 1990, when the country transitioned to democracy but kept many vestiges of the old authoritarian regime in place—including the Pinochet-era constitution and neoliberal economic policies, which entrenched many of the socioeconomic inequities seen in Chile today.

The uprising, which involved up to 1.2 million protesters at its peak, prompted Chile’s conservative president at the time, Sebastián Piñera, to institute a state of emergency and curfew as well as to deploy the military and police to quash the protests. Amnesty International documented human rights violations committed by Chile’s police during this time, including the deliberate use of excessive force against protesters. Weeks after imposing the state of emergency, Piñera called an October 2020 referendum asking Chileans to vote on whether the country should draft a new constitution. A resounding 78 percent voted yes.

For many within Chile and in its diaspora, the Chilean imagination is defined by memory: how it is created, how it is disappeared, and how it is passionately rekindled. This was thrown into stark relief during the October 2019 to March 2020 estallido social, or “social explosion,” when record-breaking anti-government protests overtook the country. Demonstrations were triggered by a 30-peso ($0.04) hike in metro fares and grew to target economic inequality, corruption, and systemic human rights abuses that date back to the era of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

For many protesters, those 30 pesos symbolized 30 years’ worth of social discontent that had been brewing since the end of Pinochet’s rule in 1990, when the country transitioned to democracy but kept many vestiges of the old authoritarian regime in place—including the Pinochet-era constitution and neoliberal economic policies, which entrenched many of the socioeconomic inequities seen in Chile today.

The uprising, which involved up to 1.2 million protesters at its peak, prompted Chile’s conservative president at the time, Sebastián Piñera, to institute a state of emergency and curfew as well as to deploy the military and police to quash the protests. Amnesty International documented human rights violations committed by Chile’s police during this time, including the deliberate use of excessive force against protesters. Weeks after imposing the state of emergency, Piñera called an October 2020 referendum asking Chileans to vote on whether the country should draft a new constitution. A resounding 78 percent voted yes.

The 2022 film My Imaginary Country, directed by Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzmán, is a poetic and epochal account of the estallido and its aftermath, culminating in the December 2021 election of millennial leftist President Gabriel Boric. Its storyline ends before the events of this past September, when Chileans overwhelmingly voted to reject the new constitution that had been drafted by a democratically elected constitutional assembly. But despite being filmed before this letdown for Boric and the far left, Guzmán’s work implicitly demands viewers look beyond it. Above all, My Imaginary Country underscores that the emotions conjured during the estallido are an enduring force that could sustain the fight for justice in Chile—whatever it looks like—for years to come. The constitutional defeat did not erode this movement, it merely reframed it.

Guzmán is one of Chile’s most prolific filmmakers. The 81-year-old has spent his career seeking to capture the Chilean spirit by chronicling the country’s most pivotal historical moments on screen. His 1970s documentary trilogy, The Battle of Chile, became a definitive account of how Pinochet overthrew socialist President Salvador Allende, and it put Guzmán on the map as one of the world’s most important documentary filmmakers. The opus only saw the light of day because Guzmán fled the country following his arrest and two-week interrogation in one of Pinochet’s most infamous prison camps. Guzmán smuggled his film to Europe and completed it in France, where he lives to this day. Despite living abroad, Guzmán remains deeply engaged with his home country: Ahead of the launch of My Imaginary Country, Guzmán was given a lifetime achievement award at the Santiago International Film Festival.

My Imaginary Country is a surprising departure from The Battle of Chile—both in execution and tone. The trilogy took viewers to the street level of the country’s violent political unrest, handheld cameras and all. But the latest work, filmed nearly one year after the start of the estallido, feels more like a polished retrospective ornamented with earnest narrations by Guzmán. Panning drone footage of protesters occupying Santiago’s Avenida Providencia captures the sheer scale and emotion of the social unrest, while interviews with protesters, assembly members, and political scientists—all women—ascribe humanity and dignity to those at the heart of the political movement.

Guzmán seems aware of these differences, and in his narrations he often compares the new film to his earlier work. The first revolution “was led by the political parties,” Guzmán narrates toward the beginning of the film. “Today, the movement is wary of the political parties and all of the institutions.”

It is those differences that both emboldened the anti-establishment estallido movement in 2019 and led to its swift burnout this year. In May 2021, Chile elected a 155-member, gender-balanced constitutional assembly to write a new draft constitution that was completed and presented to the public later that year. More than half of those elected to the assembly were independents with little or no political experience—among the delegates were “lawyers, academics, journalists, two actors, a dentist, a mechanic, a chess master and a bevy of left-wing activists,” the New York Times reported. Having such outsiders involved in the process may have appealed to the anti-establishment protesters, but as Chile-based journalist John Bartlett explained on FP’s The Negotiators podcast, it also complicated the assembly’s ability to reach political consensus on proposals.

The resulting draft was a lengthy 170-page, 388-article magna carta that would have, among other things, eliminated the country’s Senate, legalized abortion, required gender parity in government, granted protections to nature and animals, strengthened unions, and given Chileans more than 100 constitutional rights promising to care for them “from birth to death.”

These freedoms were ambitious even for a liberal society, and experts contend that the draft charter sought to push Chile leftward too hard, too soon. An economic study conducted in Chile estimated that the changes would have cost the country as much as 14 percent of its GDP if it passed.

Guzmán’s documentary offers some foreshadowing of the failure and disappointment to come: Toward the end of the film, 32-year-old constitutional assembly member and chess master Damaris Abarca candidly expresses some of her worries about the draft process, which had not yet begun.

“The worst [to happen] would be to lose faith in the convention and be left with the dictator’s constitution,” she says. “The second would be if far-right sectors of this country are re-established, like [they have been] elsewhere in the world.”

But Abarca’s fears were only partially realized. Chileans wanted a new constitution. They just didn’t want a country reconstructed beyond recognition because of it.

Guzmán’s film is at its weakest when he makes the same righteous declarations that drove the draft constitution’s demise. Near the beginning, Guzmán declares that “young people are planning something truly novel, without leaders or ideologies but united all the same.” Much of the work is filmed in Chile’s former National Congress building, which hosted the planning sessions of the 2021 Constitutional Convention. The building, once used by Congress until the coup against Allende, was declared a national monument during the Pinochet dictatorship, only to be reopened for the assembly to convene, “as if history was being repaired,” Guzmán narrates.

It’s hard to believe this sunny pronouncement to be completely true. Chile is rife with political, social, and economic divisions over how to move forward. Perhaps understandably, given his imprisonment during the dictatorship and enduring exile, Guzmán tends to over-romanticize the estallido, giving voice only to its most outspoken and idealistic leaders. The result is a passionate but incomplete picture of a movement that did not serve everyone in Chilean society.

But while pathos was at times a crutch for the film, it also conjured a specific Chilean disposition: The title, My Imaginary Country, is perhaps a nod to celebrated Chilean poet Nicanor Parra’s piece, “The Imaginary Man,” in which an imaginary man longs for the love of an imaginary woman. By shunning mainstream poetic conventions, Parra forces the reader to question the reality he presents and imagine something beyond what’s written. It’s through this allusion that Guzmán argues that today’s Chileans are rejecting the constructs that defined generations before them—in hopes that something new and cathartic can take root.

“I am anxious about the outcome of this struggle. Who will lose and who will win?” narrates Guzmán after the film’s opening scene. It’s a tension that remains in Chile—far beyond the rolling of the credits.

Kelly Kimball is the social media editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @kellyruthk Instagram: @kellyruthk

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