Q&A with Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán

I sat down with Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán during his visit to Damascus last month for the city’s annual Dox Box documentary film festival.

Photo by Carole al-Farah

More than 35 years have passed since the release of The Battle of Chile, a five-hour documentary about the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s democratically elected socialist government. The world has changed a lot since then, but the film is still incredibly popular around the world. Why do you think that is?

The film’s theme is universal. It is about revolution and the fight for democracy. Young people today need both democracy and revolution, so that is why the film is still popular around the world, regardless of the political tendencies of countries. Furthermore, the documentary does not use footage taken from an archive – it was filmed as events took place. There were only five people filming in the middle of those events. Even though we worked in secret, our cameraman Jorge Müller Silva was kidnapped by Pinochet’s [Augusto Pinochet, the army general who led the coup against Allende] military police in 1974, becoming one of the 3,000 people who disappeared in Chile. Following Pinochet’s military coup, I was arrested and held for two weeks inside Chile’s national stadium. I was threatened with execution so I fled the country to Cuba. I had to sneak the footage out of Chile through the Swedish embassy. I edited the film later in Cuba.

Your films and documentaries are deeply political. In Syria, politics and ideology have long dominated the country’s documentary scene. Young filmmakers today, however, are increasingly interested in telling people’s personal stories rather than promoting large political causes. Are the days of dogmatic films over?

They are over indeed. Dogmatic films were suitable for the 60s and 70s, but The Battle of Chile is more than simply a dogmatic film. It doesn’t aim to promote the ideology of a revolution. Instead, it depicts the various aspects of this revolution. Documentaries are neither didactic, nor do they aim to prove a point of view. Though leftist, The Battle of Chile is self-critical. It is a film which was made with a lot of passion and love and that is why it has such a big impact on people, even though it is in black and white. A film should be made because the filmmaker wants to make it, because he or she was touched by something. I was deeply affected by what happened to Allende and I will never forget it. That is why I’ve made so many films about the Chilean revolution and Pinochet. Some people have criticised me for sticking to the same themes, but I think it’s very important for a filmmaker to have his own creative zone. When filmmakers start working for TV, they are forced to follow the broadcaster’s philosophy and agenda. This contradicts what the art of filmmaking is all about.

A Swedish television channel refused to screen one of your films because it found it unbalanced. Is there any such thing as an objective, balanced documentary?

Documentary films are always subjective. All famous documentary filmmakers are subjective in their approach. However, a line of thought has emerged among European broadcasters such as the BBC which says that since the government provides support with the taxpayers’ money, the films screened should represent people from all different political, social and cultural backgrounds. As a result, a false concept of objectivity has emerged. Cinema is subjective and objectivity is no more than a lie. Subjectivity triggers dialogue.

Local filmmakers always complain about a lack of funding and strict censorship. When filming The Battle of Chile you worked with a crew of four people and had little funding. The film is also still censored in Chile. How can Syrian filmmakers overcome funding and censorship obstacles?

Compared to our time, young filmmakers today are in heaven. When I started making films we only had 16mm cameras and they were extremely heavy. The film was really expensive and the quality was bad. Today, you can find cheap high-definition film. If a filmmaker can’t make a documentary today, then he or she will never make one. If you don’t have the funding, don’t make a big film. Just filming the buildings and street scenes makes for great film material because some 40 years later this footage will reflect an era. The Santiago that I knew as a child no longer exists and because nobody shot it back then it has been lost forever. That’s why documentaries are important – a country without documentary films is like a family without a photo album.

In 1997 you established the International Documentary Film Festival of Santiago (FIDOCS), Chile’s first documentary film festival. Could you tell us more about the festival?

This year FIDOCS will be held for the 14th time. The audience has grown from 2,500 people who attended the first festival to more than 14,000 last year. With international, Latin American and Chilean documentary film selections on show, the Chilean audience has come to know many of the world’s most important documentary filmmakers. To hear two Chileans chatting about filmmakers such as France’s Nicolas Philibert, for example, is normal today. Some of the world’s most important filmmakers have visited Chile and had their films screened at FIDOCS, such as Jacques Bidou, Chris Marker and Alain Jaubert, to name a few.

Three years ago Syria held its first international documentary film festival, titled ‘Dox Box’. It is still uncommon, however, to hear people chatting away about documentaries. What does it take to develop a documentary film scene?

Government support is crucial. Having a local documentary film festival is the first step towards developing a prosperous documentary film scene. Festivals lead to cinema workshops which, in turn, lead to the establishment of cinema associations – this is what happened in Chile. But it is not easy. Chilean national TV does not screen films about the country’s history because you cannot criticise influential characters or the church, nor can you talk about women’s rights issues. While Chile used to be a forward-thinking country, today it has become a backward Catholic country. Even though all the basic factors of democracy and liberalism are available, Chile still has a problem with its past and this is hampering its development. Today, a Chilean filmmaker is in prison because she was making a film about the Araucanos [indigenous people of Chile], some of whom are fighting for independence. This filmmaker is now accused of terrorism. I consider this to be a very dangerous turn of events.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

I sat down with internationally renowned Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán during his visit to Damascus last month for the city’s annual Dox Box documentary film festival.
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