Every week or so, filmmaker and writer Robert Greene will attempt to push for a new canon of cinematic nonfiction.
Patricio Guzmán’s The Battle of Chile is not exactly an overlooked film, appearing often on “greatest documentaries of all-time” listicles, widely considered an unqualified masterpiece and nearly universally admired. The goal of this column is to create a version of a nonfiction canon that accurately makes clear the endless aesthetic possibilities of this form of filmmaking, while also highlighting lesser-seen works. But no serious list concerned with championing adventurous nonfiction would be complete without this towering, heartbreaking cinematic achievement. So today I proudly nominate one of the greatest films ever made into our new canon.
History in present-tense cinema verité, The Battle of Chile is a not an objective observation but a vividly Marxist take of the shattering events that marked the end of charismatic Chilean president Salvador Allende’s reign as democratically-elected leader of Chile. Told in three parts, nearly five hours in length and over six years in the making, the film chronicles in aching and stunning detail the time leading up to September 11, 1973, that infamous day Allende’s presidential palace was bombed in a military coup, hours before he committed suicide.
It is an extended moment of extreme political tumult, rendered in excruciating detail; a work of cinematic nonfiction as political protest art. Violent street demonstrations, fiery speeches, canny interviews with movingly engaged citizens on both the populist left and the moneyed right are accompanied by a voiceover that clarifies the chaos while interpreting the events from a Marxist perspective. It is a film that happens as we watch, the filmmakers often present while the electricity of the moment vibrates as captured energy on celluloid. This is dangerous footage (Chris Marker had to help Guzmán smuggle out the film canisters), and that feeling of stomach-punching reality makes every scene hum with a dense intensity. Part one of the three-part film ends with one of General Augusto Pinochet’s military officers murdering a cameraman on the street, as the film (and political situation) spirals out of control. The murderer was shooting at us, trying to stop this film from being seen. That we do see it is starkly, tragically profound, one of the most unnerving endings in film history.
In these days of Arab Springs and manufactured political realities, the urgency of The Battle of Chile is clear. This heart-wrenching chronicle of Chile’s moment of crisis was never meant to be metaphor, but today, almost exactly 40 years after Allende died, the film speaks unmistakably to this and every other era. It should be re-released once a year, the cinemas should be packed and we should never stop learning from its insights.
Past Nominees For the New Canon of Nonfiction Cinema: