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Obstinate Memory

Some films inspire me; keep my imagination alive, my life rich. And of all these films there is one that keeps my dreams for a better, peaceful, more just world seem possible. I go back to it often in these dark days. It is Chile, Obstinate Memory by Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán.

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Patricio has turned the seminal trauma of his youth, the death of President Salvador Allende in a coup d’etat and the subjugation of Chile’s long-established democracy by General Augusto Pinochet, into a meditation on memory and forgetting. During the Pinochet dictatorship, the military’s version of history was imposed, where they appeared as the heroic guardians of social order. Like a messenger from the past, after 23 years in exile Patricio returns to Chile with The Battle of Chile, his unflinching chronicle of the long-ago coup d’etat. Censored for all these years, Patricio shows the film for the first time to a generation raised under military rule, jarring their conscience and questioning their collective memory. Obstinate Memory creates a dynamic tension between the older generation that lived through the creation and then brutal destruction of a popular democratic movement, and the younger generation that has been taught that the destruction of this movement was necessary to save Chile from chaos and Communism.

Obstinate Memory is brilliant personal cinema of universal dimensions. Patricio sparsely narrates the film. His emotional restraint yet deep connection is felt in every slow dolly, every extreme close up, and in every silence. He weaves personal stories of courage and resistance to the coup d’etat with older people’s ideas about the meaning of memory. José Balmes, the Chilean artist who has done a series of paintings based on photographs from the day of the coup, finds that, “Memory and forgetting are recurrent questions. Like the positive and the negative, the action and thought, of human beings during their lifetime.” Or Ernesto, the soulful teacher at the heart of the film who simply says, “Recordar (Spanish for remembering) comes from the Latin re and cordum, the heart. Re return. Which means, returning to the heart to wake up again.”

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I was a young photojournalist working in Chile during the last year of the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende (the subject of Guzman’s The Battle of Chile). What I saw, what I absorbed, what I learned in that year has inspired all the films Ive made from When the Mountains Tremble to State of Fear and now The Court of Last Resort. So Chile is an obstinate memory for me too. It breathes life and hope into the darkest moments, because it was a time when people dared to dream of justice, the right to an education, good health and a roof over all heads. It was a noble dream. The failure of that dream was hard to take. As Ernesto, the charismatic teacher in the film says, “You can’t progress without dreams. Because dreams are the way we understand life.”

10 years after Obstinate Memory was finished General Pinochet was facing trial for corruption and human rights violations before he passed away, and Michele Bachelet, a former torture victim whose father was killed by the military regime, became President. The dream may yet flourish a quarter century later, because the memory was kept alive.

Patricio Guzmán dedicates Obstinate Memory to his daughters Andrea and Camila. Camila is a filmmaker whose debut documentary The Sugar Curtain premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. And Andrea is part of the DocuSur team, a vibrant Spanish film festival dedicated to the genre of documentary filmmaking. The dream lives on.

Pamela
Pamela Yates
pamela@skylight.is

Pamela Yates is a co-founder of Skylight Pictures and currently the Creative Director of Skylight, a company dedicated to creating feature length documentary films and digital media tools that advance awareness of human rights and the quest for justice by implementing multi-year outreach campaigns designed to engage, educate and activate social change.

  • Agnes Varnum

    What a lovely post, Pamela. It’s inspiring to see the documentary traditions passed from one hand to the next. The Sugar Curtain will screen at this year’s Tribeca Festival as well.

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