Credit: Icarus Films

Cathy Brennan

On October 9th 2019 I saw Patricio Guzman’s The Cordillera of Dreams at the London Film Festival. It’s a documentary about post-Pinochet Chile, which denounces the neoliberal policies that perpetuate inequality in the country. “Neoliberal” is an oft-abused term that can be rather vague. To clarify what is meant here, the Pinochet regime implemented free-market reforms devised by US-educated economists. This led to the privatisation of many industries which exacerbated economic inequality. Chile is today one of the only countries to have almost completely privatised water. Guzman narrates the film through voiceover ultimately delivering a thesis that these policies were birthed from the US-backed dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, a corrupt regime which perpetrated the murder and torture of thousands.

Five days after I saw the film, protests started in Santiago. It began with the rise of rush-hour metro prices, but quickly became an expression for general inequality in CHile and subsequently spread to other cities. President Sebastián Piñera (whose brother Jose had been the architect of Chile’s privatised pension scheme under Pinochet) hastily declared a state of emergency. While an exact figure is not certain, it has been reported that more than 20 people have died in the violence.

The Cordillera of Dreams marks the third film in what could be called a trilogy of documentaries Guzman has been making in the 2010s, which used the geography of Chile as a jumping-off point to explore the lingering after-effects of the Pinochet dictatorship. Nostalgia For the Light (2010) focusses on women searching for the remains of relatives killed by the regime, while The Pearl Button (2015) looked at the historical exploitation of indigenous people. Each film linked these issues with features of the Chilean landscape. With Nostalgia, this was the Atacama Desert, while The Pearl Button on the impact water has on the land.  With The Cordillera of Dreams, Guzman’s perspective turns inwards to the titular cordillera: a vast chain of mountain ranges we know as the Andes. These mountains overlook Guzman’s childhood home of Santiago.

In the opening of the film, Guzman problematises the audience’s relationship with images. After introducing viewers to the cordillera  through sublime aerial shots, and a shot of the camera slowly running its tongue over an old map, Guzman settles in front of a fresco of the mountain range in a Santiago subway station for a prolonged take.

The image that was once so impressive is rendered mundane as the camera’s perspective is frequently disrupted by passing commuters going about their day. A slow zoom into the fresco combines with a dissolve into more aerial footage to suggest profundity, before pulling back and returning us to the banality of waiting for a train.

It is here that Guzman recalls through voiceover seeing the cordillera for the first time on a matchbox. He cuts, as though we are peering into the director’s mind, of said matchbox. The cordillera as symbol may signal some metaphysical significance to the viewer, but Guzman reminds us that it is simultaneously that of a commonplace commodity. This ambivalence towards the significance of the image bleeds its way into an overarching theme about the role and limitations of collective remembrance.

Arguably the human centre of the film is Pablo Salas. Since the early 1980s, Salas has been filming protests, capturing the abuses of the Pinochet regime and beyond. Guzman intersperses present-day footage of Salas filming on the street, and speaking in his office, alongside archive footage he captured from the 1980s. Salas casually discusses his process alongside footage of police beating protestors and jets of water.

In his cramped office, Salas is engulfed by shelves of videotape. Reams of history shadow over him as the Andes loom over Santiago in the aerial shots that Guzman and his team have captured. Yet, as Salas himself points out, everything he and others have captured over the years is still only a fraction of the abuses that arose from the 1973 coup. Guzman silently implicates himself by including this snippet in the film, as earlier in Cordillera he recalls filming the coup for his Battle of Chile trilogy in the 1970s. The romantic notion of the cameraman, like a chivalrous knight or intrepid explorer, immortalising history with his  signature weapon, is tempered by the immense void of that which will forever remain unseen

The limitations of visual documentation proved to be prescient in the weeks after I saw the film. One of the most spectacular images from the unrest in Santiago that October was the ENEL tower building engulfed in flame. With ENEL being a multinational energy company, anti-capitalists abroad would have found it hard not to be excited by the symbolism of this footage.

However, tweets from Chileans suggest that the fire may have been a false-flag operation to turn the tide of public opinion against the protests. Therefore, the morality of non-Chilean leftists sharing such images on social media becomes more fraught. As of writing, police across the US have unleashed a wave of violence on its citizens for protesting against the continuing brutalisation of Black people. With these rapidly unfolding events in which misinformation can spread easily, the morality of sharing videos online is once again brought into focus.

This leaves us all with the uncomfortable question about the political utility of films.What purposes do these images of protests and political repression seek to serve?

 As much as we may like to think otherwise, the market can reduce something as poetic and committed as The Cordillera of Dreams to just another matchbox we can log on Letterboxd.

For a young film critic, still excited by international film festivals, it is all too easy to be swept up into the romantic myth of a partaking in the nexus of a global culture. Yet such an attitude obscures the contradictions in how these festivals operate. We feel good watching “worthwhile” or “important” documentaries about the issues facing our world, issues we may otherwise have been ignorant to.

Yet, as Guzman seeks to draw attention to that which is unseen, the cosmopolitan cinephile may be unable or unwilling to seek out the invisible hand of neo-liberalism that guides their viewing habits. The London Film Festival, where I saw Cordillera is sponsored by American Express,  a corporate entity that is very much part of the capitalist machine that continues to extract wealth from Latin America. According to a 2007 article by Manuel Riesco in the New Left Review, Chile’s largest export, copper, is 70 percent controlled by multinational corporations. Guzman highlights this economic reality in Cordillera through an eerie sequence of trains transporting copper, at one point halting at a shanty town. 

As global inequality becomes evermore stark both onscreen and in our everyday lives, simply sitting in a cinema or clicking on a vimeo link without significant action backing it up is shown up as an empty gesture. The pervasive myth of film as a unifying force is peddled by cinephiles less as a call to change our world but merely to justify their own existence as cinephiles. It is a hollow call devoid of connection from the world we all live in. As politically conscious viewers we must ask ourselves: “What Is To Be Done?” 

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