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Memory is a hard thing to come by these days, particularly on a culture-wide basis. We much prefer to shrug off the burden of remembering all of the political crimes and malfeasance of wars and acts of flamboyant corruption, going back decades or even just a few years ago, in favor of tending to our entertainment dystopias. 

Chile, among the many countries for which the twentieth century was a grueling cascade of injustice and cruelty, is lucky enough to have Patricio Guzman.

Who in today’s apocalyptic landscape even has room in their angry hearts for recalling the invasion of Iraq? Guantanamo? Reagan-era Central America? The inferno of Southeast Asia under Johnson and Nixon? Gore Vidal used to call it the “United States of Amnesia,” but it’s hardly only an American phenomenon. Even European voters are choosing to forget what fascist authoritarianism does when you conjure it out of the pit.  

But some people do remember, and some of those people are filmmakers. Chile, among the many countries for which the twentieth century was a grueling cascade of injustice and cruelty, is lucky enough to have Patricio Guzman. His more-than-fifty-year career has been single-mindedly dedicated to chronicling the short-lived Salvador Allende administration, its scorched demise, and the Pinochet-junta dark ages that followed, long after his countrymen have wanted him to stop. Guzman’s new documentary, The Cordillera of Dreams, opening February 12, has the flavor of a farewell (he’s seventy-eight), but one that simmers to a boil.

The proper place to begin is where Guzman began, with The Battle of Chile (1975-76), one of the most vital pieces of actual history ever put on celluloid—if only because entire nations don’t commonly plunge into homicidal autocracy on film. In two parts totaling almost five hours, the film documenting the ascension of Allende and the subsequent CIA-backed coup that bloodied the streets (and famously killed one of Guzman’s cameramen as he was shooting) is a scalding lesson in orchestrated class disaster and power-mad malice that should be required viewing for high schoolers everywhere. 

More Guzman films followed as the years passed, increasingly focused on the apparently pathological Chilean hunger for amnesia. In film after film, he yowls alone in the wilderness of a national culture still unwilling to face the Pinochet era’s cost in corpses and vanishings.

Exiled in 1973, Guzman returned to Chile after Pinochet ceded power to show The Battle of Chile for the first time in Santiago, a trip recorded as Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997). It’s a rueful document, as Guzman picks at scabs no one wants opened, bringing his film to schoolchildren who were taught a Bizarro World version of the events of 1973. Guzman’s films seethed with a head-shaking stupefaction—how could history, especially when it’s filmed, cease to matter?

Next, history did Guzman’s work for him, with Pinochet’s 1998 arrest in Great Britain on human rights violations charges. The Pinochet Case (2001) tracks the case through to Pinochet’s safe landing in his homeland, at which point the sleepwalking Chilean judicial system suddenly sat up and smelled the carrion. 

Pinochet would die comfortably a few years later, but here Guzman never loses sight of the bones in the ground or the grand hypocrisy of world leaders. He returned to the past again with Salvador Allende (2004), giving the lost Socialist icon the biography no one in Chile will write and recounting the coup yet again in a kind of memorial for what could have been.

The more time goes by, the more stubborn Guzman gets. Nostalgia for the Light (2010) and The Pearl Button (2015) found him in a deceptively reflective mode, looking at subjects like the Atacama desert and the fading tribes of Tierra del Fuego as a means to revisit the Pinochet legacy of concentration camps, genocide and torture programs. 

The Cordillera of Dreams continues this vibe. Guzman begins by contemplating the cordillera of the Andes, which consumes one half of Chile’s skinny seam and comprises a timeless wall separating it from the world. He interviews sculptors (who use stones quarried from the mountains), writers, and painters, all of whom struggle to articulate the spiritual and metaphorical weight of the range—which goes largely unnoticed by average Chileans. (Santiago turns “its back on it,” Guzman observes.)

His own memories, triggered by his latest visit, intervene—how he began shooting The Battle of Chile and how he was arrested days after the coup and held for weeks in the same soccer stadium where he saw Chile play the World Cup when he was a kid. He never divulged the location of the film cans that held The Battle of Chile, and fled as soon as he was released, leaving the rest of that epic document to be lensed by others.

One of those shooters, Pablos Salas, then takes over the movie. Salas was never arrested and has remained in Santiago all these decades, filming protest marches and police actions and compiling a record of the nation’s conflicted life on the street. This sits on his shelves in various film and video formats, awaiting archivization. 

Guzman uses Salas’s 1970s footage, bringing us right back to the Pinochet nightmare with visions of public police brutality: women and students clubbed, water cannons, splattered blood, unconscious bodies, tanks, swinging batons. There is revealing footage Salas grabbed from a high window of that soccer stadium filled with thousands of political prisoners like Guzman (all men, arrested en masse). 

It’s a tragic arc, as Guzman sees it, one that generalizes neatly around the world and has been faulted for the rise in economic rage and autocratism over the last few decades.

Guzman eventually toggles, as he must, to what has happened in his country since, beginning with the invasion of the Chicago Boys and their Milton Friedman-trained neoliberal economic program and the resulting decades of increased economic inequity. He arrives to the present day, when the millionaire class control where highways get built (between their enclaves and airports, not near poor neighborhoods) and the country’s copper resources (its primary natural asset) are largely owned by foreign corporations. “The Army sold the country,” Salas says, and soon we see a brand new protest met with police water cannons, as if the country is, in fact, walled off from the world, leaving it stuck in the Pinochet 1970s.

It’s a tragic arc, as Guzman sees it, one that generalizes neatly around the world and has been faulted for the rise in economic rage and autocratism over the last few decades—though of course too few of the furious disadvantaged muster the memory required to really do the reading, follow the money, and reach a proper conclusion about who to blame. 

For Guzman, who’s more than earned the right to relate personally to his native country’s travails, that is the pressing crisis of the moment: our failure of memory. He has good reason to fear that, once he’s gone, the selfish forgetfulness he’s been questioning and combating all these years will swallow him and his work altogether, and Pinochet will finally win for good.