Review of “My Imaginary Country”: Revolt in Chile

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(Critic’s Choice)

The strongest images in My Imaginary Country come from the protests on the streets of Santiago de Chile that began in October 2019. Hundreds of thousands of Chileans took to the streets; first, to protest against a price increase for the subway ticket, and later to demand fundamental changes in the country’s political and economic order. They met them with tear gas, police batons and plastic bullets aimed at eye level. Some defended themselves with stones they found on the street and threw at the police.

Seeing such scenes in a documentary (or even on social media) means an intense feeling of déjà vu. What happened in Santiago in 2019 and 2020 feels like an echo of similar uprisings around the world: in Tehran, Iran, in 2009 (and again this week); in Arab capitals like Tunis; Damascus, Syria and Cairo in 2011; 2014 in Kyiv, Ukraine; in Paris at the height of the Gilets Jaunes movement in 2018. These events are not identical, but each represents the eruption of a longstanding dissatisfaction with a status quo that seems eternally indifferent to people’s grievances.

The euphoria that these images could trigger is accompanied by a premonition. In almost all cases, these rebellions ended in defeat, disappointment, indifference, or worse. The vibrant democratic promise of Cairo’s Tahrir Square has been stifled by a decade of military dictatorship. Since then, Ukraine’s democracy, which seemed victorious after Euromaidan, the “Revolution of Dignity,” has faced internal and external threats, most recently from Vladimir Putin’s Russian army.

Jehane Noujaim’s The Square and Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire are excellent documentaries of the facts about Tahrir and Euromaidan, and My Imaginary Country deserves to be in their company. However, it also has special significance for Chile and the career of its director Patricio Guzmán, who brings a unique and powerful historical perspective on his country’s current circumstances. He has witnessed such events before and has reason to hope that this time will be different.

Guzmán, now in his 80s, can be aptly described as Chile’s biographer and cinematographic conscience. His first documentary film, footage of which can be seen here, was about the early months of Salvador Allende’s presidency, which began in an atmosphere of optimism and defiance in 1970 and ended three years later in a brutal US-backed military coup. Guzmán’s account of Allende’s fall and subsequent repression is told in The Battle of Chile, a trilogy of documentaries Guzmán completed while in exile in France and which remains one of the great political films of the last half century.

More recently, in another trilogy (“Nostalgia for the Light,” “The Pearl Button,” and “The Mountain Range of Dreams”), Guzmán has explored Chile’s distinctive cultural and geographic identity, reflecting on the intersections of Chile’s ecology, demographics, and politics lyrical and essayistic manner. In My Imaginary Country he cites French filmmaker Chris Marker as a mentor, and they share a spirit of critical humanism and a habit of seeking story meaning in the fine grain of experience.

Although it takes place in the first person and the director speaks from the off, this documentary expresses a poignant humility and a willingness to listen patiently. Guzmán interweaves clips of the protests with interviews of the participants, most of them young and all women.

This revolution, which culminated in the election of Gabriel Boric, a left-wing politician in his 30s, as President of Chile and the calling of a referendum on a new constitution, arose out of the economic frustration of students and working people. However, Guzmán and the activists, academics and journalists she speaks to make it clear that feminism has always been at the heart of the movement. They argue that the plight of poor and indigenous Chileans cannot be understood or addressed without considering their gender and that women’s equality is fundamental to any egalitarian politics.

“My Imaginary Country” concludes with a new constituent assembly (including many veterans of the protests) meeting to draft a new constitution that they hope will finally erase the legacy of Augusto Pinochet’s long dictatorship. After the film was completed, voters rejected the first draft, a setback for Boric and for the radical energy that Guzmán’s film captures and celebrates. Whatever the next chapter is, let’s hope he’s there to capture it.

“My Imaginary Country”: Unrated. Spanish with subtitles. Duration: 1 hour with 23 minutes. In theatres.

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