An emblematic documentary salvaged during Chile's dictatorship has been restored

Screenshot of the documentary “The Battle of Chile: The Struggle of an Unarmed People” Youtube/El Porteño

On September 11, 2023, Chile commemorated 50 years since the coup d'état that gave rise to a military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet that would last 17 years – a period characterized by human rights violations, crimes against humanity, and a neoliberal economic model.

That same year, a group of people also rescued an important part of Latin America's audiovisual memory. They classified and rescued the negative film material and dissuaded the military forces from taking them. They shipped the recordings of the historical events that filmmakers had managed to capture in the midst of great political and social uncertainty out of the country by boat.

Young filmmakers in their 20s and 30s decided to record Chile's history in the making in audio and video. The team consisted of Patricio Guzmán (director), Jorge Müller (cameraman and director of photography), Bernardo Menz (sound engineer), Federico Elton (production manager), José Juan Bartolomé (first assistant producer) and Guillermo Cahn (second assistant director).

File photo of Armindo Cardoso (1973), accessed online at the National Digital Library of Chile. From left to right, Jorge Müller, director of photography, disappeared detainee; Patricio Guzmán, (seated on the floor) director; Federico Elton, Production Manager; José Bartolomé, Assistant Director and Bernardo Menz, Sound Engineer.

The shooting lasted a whole year in Santiago and in some southern and northern provinces. In the words of the film's director:

Esta película fue para nosotros mucho más que una película: maduramos, crecimos, lloramos y gritamos, nos desarrollamos juntos con ella. Comprendimos cómo era la vida colectiva, los actos de miles de chilenos: el valor de los que no tenían casi nada y que levantaban los brazos. Pudimos filmar —y sobre todo entender— el momento en que la vida cotidiana se convierte en vida política, o viceversa.

This film was for us much more than a film: we matured, we grew up, we cried and shouted, we developed together with it. We understood what collective life was like, the actions of thousands of Chileans: the courage of those who had almost nothing and who raised their arms. We were able to film – and above all to understand – the moment when everyday life becomes political life, or vice versa.

Filming began on February 20, 1973, a little more than two years after Salvador Allende‘s popular triumph as president of Chile in 1970. That moment had signaled the possibility of a peaceful and constitutional reform and promised a progressive social program. There was social enthusiasm in Chile.

After months of struggling to obtain positive tapes due to the commercial restrictions that the United States imposed on Chile, they obtained the film material thanks to filmmaker Chris Marker, who sent it to them from abroad. The team had approximately 18 hours available for filming.

Salvador Allende's government ended abruptly in a coup d'état on September 11, 1973, ending the Popular Unity government and the filming of “The Battle of Chile.” The young people decided that the best thing to do was to stop filming and thus safeguard the material they had already obtained, because they were running a great risk. Besides, the limited negative material was finished and they would not have been able to continue filming.

Before and after the fall of Allende there were raids. One of these took place at the house of director Patricio Guzmán, after he was arrested and taken prisoner. The military entered his house with rifles and machine guns and there, Paloma Urzúa Theoduloz, his then-wife, deterred and confused them. Their daughters Andrea and Camila were there with her. She recounted the story in the memoirs of the documentary:

Fui a mi dormitorio a buscar las llaves. Regresé y abrí el baúl grande, donde había muchos rollos de negativos de los cortos publicitarios que había hecho Patricio en España. Había muchos ejemplares de las revistas Punto Final y Chile Hoy, más algunos ejemplares del diario El Mercurio.

I went to my bedroom to get the keys. I came back and opened the big trunk, where there were many rolls of negatives of the short advertising films that Patricio had made in Spain. There were [also] many copies of the magazines Punto Final and Chile Hoy, plus some copies of the newspaper El Mercurio.

She made the soldiers believe that they had taken the documentary material, which allowed her to safeguard the last 10 cans of “The Battle of Chile” that were at her home. It also allowed to save time for them to move the rest of the material which was in the house of Ignacio Valenzuela, Patricio Guzmán's uncle, to the Swedish Embassy.

The footage arrived at the Swedish embassy thanks to the efforts of embassy employee Lilian Indseth, Paloma Urzúa Theoduloz, Gastón Ancelovici, Patricio's uncle Ignacio who kept the archive, and Federico de Eltón Aguirre. Swedish ambassador Harald Edelstan offered them the facilities of the embassy and transportation — he was declared “persona non grata” a few days later. Jaime, whose last name is not mentioned, took the last film tapes from Patricio's house in a bag with lettuce and tomatoes to pass the controls of the guard who was watching the house.

After many hiccups, the video and audio tapes arrived at the port of Valparaiso. Ignacio, the director's uncle, says:

Ya en Valparaiso los militares no querían permitir que se subiera el material, porque era mucho material. Felizmente bajó el capitán del barco y se impuso, y dio la orden de subir el material porque era un material diplomático y aceptaron.

Once in Valparaiso, the military did not want to allow the material to be taken on board, because it was a lot of stuff. Fortunately, the captain of the ship came down and prevailed, and gave the order to take the material up because it was diplomatic cargo, and they accepted.

The film material consisted of approximately 86 boxes that were carefully organized and classified by Chilean filmmaker Nieves Zenteno while she was in asylum at the Swedish embassy in Santiago, Chile.

The Swedish vessel, named Rio de Janeiro, sailed with the film material for about three months at half speed as a strategy to consume less fuel, due to the oil crisis that year. Such a trip usually took 20 days. Later, in Cuba, Pedro Chaskel was in charge of editing the film.

These young filmmakers managed to tell a part of Chile's history for future times thanks to a group of people who undertook collective tasks to keep the film archives safe. This set of actions even endangered their lives, which would, in several cases, end in stories of exile.

One of them never returned. Jorge Müller Silva, in charge of camera and photography, was arrested and disappeared by agents of the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA) on November 29, 1974, at the age of 27. For this reason, the entire documentary trilogy was dedicated to his memory.

“The Battle of Chile, the Struggle of an Unarmed People” is a Chilean documentary that gives an account of the events that took place between 1972 and September 1973. It is a trilogy of three films: “The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie,” “The Coup d'Etat,” and “The People's Power.” The premiere of its restored version 50 years after these events is expected this month.

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