Chilean Politics through Film


The toppling of the Salvador Allende government in 1973 and the twenty-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet that followed in Chile sent many of the country’s artists, including its filmmakers, into exile. The turmoil of the country’s politics and daily life during this period eventually spawned many films by those who sought to ensure that no one would forget their September 11, the date of the coup. Exile became their muse. Visitors who are planning to travel to Chile or who have just returned from their Chile tours will find these films illuminating.

Roman Polanski’s 1994 film adapted from Ariel Dorman’s 1990 play of the same name, Death and the Maiden, depicted life under the dictatorship. It starred Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley. The 2007 documentary, directed by Peter Raymont, A Promise to the Dead, was based on a memoir that Dorfman wrote about the Pinochet period.

One of Chile’s best known documentary filmmakers, Patricio Guzman began making films about the coup as soon as he graduated from film school in 1970. His first was The First Year about the actions Salvador Allende took soon after his inauguration in 1971, including nationalizing the copper mining industry. Guzman’s film trilogy, The Battle of Chile followed, describing the presidency of Allende and his following. Many consider this work one of the finest political films ever made. Guzman was filming the coup when he was arrested in Santiago and detained for two weeks in the National Stadium as were many others. His documentary, Chile, Obstinate Memory, about the citizenry’s willingness to forget the Allende/Pinochet era premiered at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.

Guzman’s film, The Pinochet Case, chronicles the legal case filed against the dictator, including the fascinating tale of Pinochet’s unexpected arrest in 1998 as he was recuperating from surgery in London. He spent two more years in England before the British government eliminated his immunity so that he could be brought to trial in Spain. The investigation was ongoing at the time of his death in 2006. Three decades after the coup, Guzman produced another documentary about the life of Allende that premiered in 2004.

Though the coup occurred almost four decades ago, to travel to Chile and be unaware of this pivotal event in the country’s history is to miss a dimension of the soul of contemporary Chile. The Chileans, of course, are not of one mind about Augusto Pinochet. A summer, 2012 screening of Pinochet, a documentary that puts a positive spin on the actions of the general, brought hundreds of protestors to the streets of Santiago to demonstrate where they had done so during the dictatorship itself. Chile is a democracy now, so court challenges to block the film’s release were denied as a violation of free speech.

Probably the most widely watched film about Chile’s coup is Costa-Gavras’ 1982 film, Missing, though set in an unnamed South American country. Based on the Thomas Hauser’s book, The Execution of Charles Horman, the film tells the story of a wife and father looking for their loved one, a journalist who disappears while covering a coup and reflected poorly on American foreign policy. The film was first banned in Chile, and then its U.S. release was postponed until a character defamation lawsuit was settled. Missing was nominated for an Oscar for best picture and won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival where it premiered.