By Anees Aref.
Even if doesn’t quite cover the full breadth of recent Chilean history, Patricio Guzman’s My Imaginary Country does powerfully capture the yearning and communal passion that drives the revolution to this day.”
Released in the fall of 2022 and now available on DVD, My Imaginary Country is the latest documentary film from Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman, capturing the ongoing revolutionary movement in Chile which erupted back in October, 2019 when mass demonstrations for social, political, and economic change rocked the country and was met with violent crackdowns by the country’s military. The director of acclaimed films such as The Battle of Chile, Guzman captures the vitality and urgency of the youth led movement for the overthrow of the current political system in Chile, which was largely enshrined by the leftover constitution established during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet from 1973-1987.
Guzman begins the tale in 1973, during the term of then leftist President Salvador Allende, who was overthrown and killed during a military coup d’état which resulted in the Pinochet regime. It’s a time which marked Guzman forever as he says, dashing the hopes of those looking to a future of democracy and social progress in Chile, hopes which were resurrected in the streets of Santiago in 2019 and remain ongoing.
For those not following recent developments in Chile, Guzman captures the heartbeat of the country’s contemporary politics, immersing us in the democratic movement that he says–to his surprise–began with an increase in the country’s subway fare by 30 pesos back in 2019. This outraged many in the nation, leading to a youth led backlash that was symbolized by not paying the ticket fare. “If you pay, you’re a cop!” became a rallying cry of the demonstrations.
Young, women, indigenous peoples, and many other marginalized groups are represented by the movement and its various demands. A notable moment occurs when the head of the new constitutional convention to rewrite the country’s legal framework is a woman of the indigenous Mapuche people.
Guzman’s camera captures powerful imagery throughout. We’re in the streets with the demonstrators as they clash with armed military police, shields in hand, as Molotov cocktails meet with tear gas and tanks, in scenes that feel like something out of a war movie or classics like The Battle of Algiers or Z. This is real life footage taken on the ground however, and Guzman has the eye of both a journalist and an artist.
It’s interesting that the film doesn’t mention the United States’ involvement in Chilean affairs, particularly the role it played in overthrowing Allende and supporting the Pinochet government. Perhaps Guzman wants to keep the focus on the efforts of Chileans themselves in shaping the country, but it’s hard not to sense the specter of the northern giant over Chile’s modern history. The tone remains optimistic and hopeful, as several interview subjects indicate cautiously. Indeed, most if not all the subjects interviewed are women, reflecting the feminist driving force behind much of the revolutionary movement’s energy and passion. The scenes showing the musical protests of masses of women in the streets chanting “the patriarchy is a judge…” and “the rapist is you” towards the ruling elite sends chills through the body.
Guzman brings things full circle between the country’s history and his own personal story when he shows us the National Football Stadium where Pinochet’s gang had rounded up thousands of prisoners, including Guzman himself, during the 1973 coup. “It marked me forever” to paraphrase his words. In the film’s final sections Guzman chronicles the headline making constitutional convention the country underwent in the last couple of years. Though there are many issues and social questions to be addressed by the process, the fact that Chileans are undertaking the process is a huge step in itself to rewrite the country’s social contract and political organization.
It’s a stirring film, even if doesn’t quite cover the full breadth of recent Chilean history (besides the U.S., one might’ve liked to see the neighboring Latin American response). It does powerfully capture the yearning and communal passion that drives the revolution to this day, underscoring it with the 2021 presidential election of the youthful Gabriel Boric at the films end. Only 35 upon election, Boric suggests a new generational vision for the country’s future, a process which is ongoing, as its many participants acknowledge with caution. My Imaginary Country is a fitting title for this story, as it takes the imagination of a people and a nation to write and continually rewrite the pages of history, and those of the future to come.
Anees Aref is a writer on film, history, and politics based in the Los Angeles area who has published abroad as well as in the United States.