“Memory is our best weapon,” says Valentina Miranda, a young student and fierce activist, when interviewed by veteran documentarian Patricio Guzmán about the massive protests that united the Chilean population in 2019, leading to the redrafting of the country’s longstanding constitution. Her concise but truthful statement in turn encapsulates what the director has pursued his entire career behind the camera: immortalizing the present so it’s not forgotten.
The intergenerational exchange between Miranda and Guzmán is one of many in his organically comprehensive and elegantly galvanizing new non-fiction piece “My Imaginary Country” (“Mi país imaginario”), which debuted out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.
Footage of cheerful crowds celebrating the victory of Salvador Allende in the 1970 presidential election opens the film on a melancholic note. Soon Guzmán’s voice reminds us that, only three years later, a coup d’état would install dictator Augusto Pinochet in power. The master filmmaker’s soft-spoken yet pointedly poetic narration expresses his profoundly personal relationship with the sociopolitical changes that Chile has endured throughout his life.
Half a century later, Guzmán traces the spark that ignited the social outburst of 2019 to the government’s decision to raise the subway fare. Young people, already in economically precarious circumstances without access to education or career prospects, found the move a shameless attack, adding to their pent-up discontent toward the systems that perpetuate abysmal inequality. On Oct. 18 of that year, people took to the street with a righteous fury.
One conversation at a time, Guzmán explores the motivations and commitment of those on the frontlines fighting vicious policemen to make their voices heard. From a young mother who wears flowers on her protective gear, he learns there are no hierarchies in the movement, only individuals united to demand dignity from those in power. Days later, on Oct. 23, 1.2 million Chileans participated in the largest demonstration the South American nation has ever seen.
Testament to his curiosity as a storyteller, as Guzmán investigates the macro issues, he also pays close attention to those details that may seem irrelevant, but that expand our spiritual understanding of how this breaking point injected renewed hope into the Chilean citizenry.
Some passages center the rocks that protesters used to hold back the police. Closeups of the jagged chunks of asphalt of all sizes, broken directly from the ground on which the dissidents stand, make them seem almost mythical as the noble ammunition of the people. Other segments listen attentively to the chants of liberation that emanate from the masses or the rhythmic sounds of saucepans serving as makeshift war drums. Guzmán observes them all.
As Guzmán enlists a chorus of speakers from distinct walks of life to provide insight, it doesn’t take long for one to notice that he features chats with women only, as a way, perhaps, for his film to reflect the crucial role they had in these earth-shattering events.
They include a first responder who notes that 400 people lost eyes due to the authorities’ brutality, as well as several intellectuals, indigenous Mapuche linguist Elisa Loncón and Sibila Sotomayor, one of the four members from the feminist collective “Las Tesis” who created the poem, “A Rapist in Your Path,” which resonated across Latin American and the world, becoming an anthem denouncing the patriarchy.
One notably omitted perspective, perhaps deliberately so, is that of the police officers and soldiers who willfully deployed unwarranted violence on the population with zero empathy for those they subjugated. Maybe such a veteran does not exist, but is it too farfetched or naïve to believe that in the aftermath of the October 2019 turning point, some of those uniformed men could have reconsidered their position as instruments of terror? One can wish.
At 81 years old, Guzmán is one of the most preeminent visual historians of his country’s recent past. That he humbly engages with and exalts the hard-fought accomplishments of young people who are the fuel of this invigorating chapter is admirable. In them, he sees the inspiring raw material for transformation. Even his personal reflections as a survivor who spent two decades in exile elucidate how unprecedented this moment is for Chile.
Late in the doc, as the movement bears fruit and new perspectives are brought into the decision-making process, he touches on the significance of the National Stadium, a location that has appeared in many of his works. Once used as a concentration camp by the Pinochet regime where Guzmán was imprisoned, in 2020 it served as polling place for a referendum to do away with the dictatorship-era constitution.
“My Imaginary Country” is as much about the causes, participants and outcomes of a collective awakening in search of a more promising future as it is about an artist allowing himself to feel hope for a homeland that has forever been the focus of his artistic preoccupations. Now that a version of the democracy he fantasized about — and which was abruptly taken away from many generations — might finally cross from the realm of the impossible into a realistically actionable plan, Guzmán thanks the youth for the miracle.
“My Imaginary Country” opens in select US theaters Sept. 30 via Icarus Films.