While several European nations are leaning toward or outright falling to reactionary leaders like Victor Orbán in Hungary, Latin American nations are going the other way. My Imaginary Country (Mi país imaginario), the most recent film by Chile’s master documentarian Patricio Guzmán, brilliantly shows us what is happening in Chile.
In October 2019, without warning, a revolution exploded across Chile. It was an event that Guzmán had been waiting for since 1973, when a violent military attack overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, and became the ending of Guzman’s most famous film, and one of the greatest documentaries of all time, The Battle of Chile.
Now, millions of people took to the streets of Santiago and across the country, demanding economic justice, free education and health care and fundamentally, a new constitution.
Featuring harrowing front-line protest footage and interviews with dynamic activists—of a movement largely led by women and feminist leaders—My Imaginary Country powerfully, yet elegantly connects Chile’s complex, bloody history to the country’s contemporary social movements, and leading to the recent election of a new president.
An urgent and powerful film, My Imaginary Country also serves as an inspiring and exemplary tale for other nations of how a popular revolt can spark deep political change.
“With civil liberties in America under attack, those willing to fight to keep the liberties we have in place could learn a thing or two from the Patricio Guzmán documentary.” ~ Valerie Complex, Deadline
A Critic’s Pick in the New York Times, A.O. Scott’s review, headlined “Chile in Revolt: Patricio Guzmán, Chile’s cinematic conscience, chronicles the uprising that shook the country starting in 2019” is worth sharing in full:
The most powerful images in My Imaginary Country are of the demonstrations in the streets of Santiago, Chile, that began in October 2019. Hundreds of thousands of Chileans took to the streets, at first to protest a subway fare increase, and eventually to demand sweeping changes to the nation’s economic and political order. They were met with tear gas, baton charges and plastic bullets aimed at their eyes. Some fought back with cobblestones chiseled from the street, which they hurled at the police.
To watch scenes like that in a documentary film — or, for that matter, on social media — is to experience a strong sense of déjà vu. What happened in Santiago in 2019 and 2020 feels like an echo of similar uprisings around the world; in Tehran in 2009 (and again this week); in Arab capitals like Tunis, Damascus and Cairo in 2011; in Kyiv in 2014; in Paris at the height of the Yellow Vest movement in 2018. Those episodes aren’t identical, but each represents the eruption of long-simmering dissatisfaction with a status quo that seems stubbornly indifferent to the grievances of the people.
Accompanying the exhilaration that these pictures might bring is a sense of foreboding. In almost every case, these rebellions ended in defeat, disappointment, stalemate or worse. The buoyant democratic promise of Tahrir Square in Cairo has been smothered by a decade of military dictatorship. Ukrainian democracy, seemingly victorious after the Maidan “revolution of dignity,” has since faced internal and external threats, most recently from Vladimir Putin’s army.
Jehane Noujaim’s “The Square” and Evgeny Afineevsky’s “Winter on Fire” are excellent in-the-moment films about Tahrir and Maidan, and My Imaginary Country belongs in their company. But it also has a resonance specific to Chile, and to the career of its director, Patricio Guzmán, who brings a unique and powerful historical perspective to his country’s present circumstances. He has seen events like this before, and has reason to hope that this time might be different.
Guzman, now in his early 80s, can fairly be described as Chile’s biographer, and also its cinematic conscience. His first documentary, footage from which appears in this one, was about the early months of Salvador Allende’s presidency, which began in an atmosphere of optimism and defiance in 1970 and ended in a brutal U.S.-supported military coup three years later. Guzman’s account of Allende’s fall and the repression that followed is the three-part “Battle of Chile,” which he completed while exiled in France, and which stands as one of the great political films of the past half-century.
More recently, in another trilogy— “Nostalgia For the Light,” “The Pearl Button” and “Cordillera of Dreams” — Guzman has explored Chile’s distinct cultural and geographical identity, musing on the intersections of ecology, demography and politics in a mode that is lyrical and essayistic. In “My Imaginary Country” he cites the French filmmaker Chris Marker as a mentor, and they share a spirit of critical humanism and a habit of looking for the meaning of history in the fine grain of experience.
While this is a first-person documentary, with the director providing voice-over narration, it expresses a poignant humility and a patient willingness to listen. Guzman interweaves footage of the demonstrations into interviews with participants, most of them young and all of them women.
This revolution, which culminated in the election of Gabriel Boric, a leftist in his 30s, to Chile’s presidency and a referendum calling for a new constitution, arose out of the economic frustrations of students and working people. But Guzman and the activists, scholars and journalists he talks to make clear that feminism was always central to the movement. They argue that the plight of poor and Indigenous Chileans can’t be understood or addressed without taking gender into account, and that the equality of women is foundational to any egalitarian politics.
My Imaginary Country ends with a new constituent assembly — including many veterans of the demonstrations — meeting to write a new constitution that they hope will finally dispel the legacy of Augusto Pinochet’s long dictatorship. After the film was completed, voters rejected their first draft, a setback to Boric and to the radical energy Guzman’s film captures and celebrates. Whatever the next chapter will be, we can hope that he is around to record it.