Guzman: Intersecting Fiction and Documentary


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My first of three essays on Latin American Cinema. I analyze the films of Patricio Guzman: The Battle of Chile and Obstinate Memory.

Author: Alberto D’Onofrio

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Ignacio, an eighty-year-old man, sits at his piano and performs a melancholic composition that appropriately acts as a diagetic soundtrack to the film Obstinate Memory, a 1997 film directed by Patricio Guzman. The filmmaker asks the man, “What does remembering mean to you?” and he replies, “Remembering is returning to the past… you see the past as it was”. Ignacio refers to the events chronicled in Guzman’s three-part documentary The Battle of Chile. Returning to the past is not only significant to Obstinate Memory but also a reference to Latin American Cinema as its origin reigns from the critical realist style of filmmaker Fernando Birri (King, 417), a style that is present in Obstinate Memory and Battle of Chile (Guzman, 1975-1978). True to John King’s explanation of Latin-American Cinema, the films have a desire to, “Explore a fractured past and imagine different futures” (King, 417) while The Battle of Chile’s cinematic sensibility and Obstinate Memory’s subjectivity challenges truth and representation as Guzman intersects fiction and documentary.

Guzman’s film, The Battle of Chile, is a documentary that incorporates fictional and cinematic sensibilities that heighten the critical-realist style of Latin American Cinema, a style that, as John King describes it, represents and encourages social change (King, 399). The political background of the film begins with the bombing of the presidential palace. This marked the end of Popular Unity, the democratically socialist government under Salvador Allended, and initiated a dictatorship (Klubock, 272). The event provoked the citizens of Chile to protest, which was effectively captured by Guzman and his crew.

The documentary aspect of the film is evident. It utilizes a cinema-verite style that was developed in the 1960’s after the innovations of transportable cameras and synchronous sound, technologies that allow a true representation of reality (Glossary, 1). The film demonstrates the ability of the handheld camera for flexible coverage as it captures the events up-close and personal. Sound technology is also visible to the viewer as the sound operator strikes the microphone to allow post-production syncing. Although this would be cut in most films, cinema verite encourages the filmmaking process and this only heightens the reality of the moments captured.

The advantages of transportable technology to capture live events are not only evident in the film, but also the history of its production, which is detailed in The Battle of Chile’s Press Release. Guzman explains that, “You would be sitting in a café, working on a script, and all of a sudden a group of picketing workers with red flags would pass by… How could you not film that? Why distance oneself from that reality?” (Icarus Films, 13). The small anecdote validates the reality of the film. It explains the ability to capture events that have no schedule – they can happen anywhere, anytime. Although the film is labeled as a documentary, Guzman wanted to avoid the typical, informative style of this category.

As a filmmaker who studied fiction film (Icarus Film, 14), Guzman’s The Battle of Chile offers a cinematic and fictional representation of true events. The film includes cinematic coverage of the interviews, where the focus is not solely on one person and their opinions, but also the emotions they convey. This is executed through extreme close-ups and unusual camera angles. For example, an interview includes an upset but passionate woman who is covered in extreme close-ups, a type of shot that compliments her emotions. Another interview includes a woman expressing her views with pride and confidence, hence a low-angle camera angle is used.  This evokes the power and strength of the woman’s message and personality while also covering the crowd that stands strong and proudly with her. As authors Victor Wallace and John D. Barlow examine Guzman’s cinematic sensibility, it is a “Hollywood portrayal of the forces of liberty opposing those of tyranny” (Wallace and Barlow, 410). “Hollywood portrayal” is an interesting choice of words for Wallace and Barlow as it explains the fictional elements of Guzman’s coverage of the Chilean citizens. Observing reality with fictional terms, the film’s main actors are real, working class Chileans, who serve as clear protagonists to the military coup, the antagonist.

Guzman’s intention with The Battle of Chile was to make an analytical documentary that can be observed and studied by Chileans in the future (Icarus Film, 14), which supports John King’s explanation of the critical-realist style of Latin American Cinema that suggests social change. I believe that because Guzman captured the events in such a cinematic way, the power of the film is heightened which allows an effective and emotional analysis for future Chileans. Guzman’s intention became a reality when his 1997 film Obstinate Memory was released.

Guzman screened The Battle of Chile to his Chilean community for the first time after being band for decades by the authorities (IMDb). Separating The Battle of Chile from Obstinate Memory, Thomas Kublock describes the 1970’s three-part film as, “Cinema verite. It was an unrepeatable social experience. The second [Obstinate Memory] is a more personal film about remembering” (Kublock 125). In Obstinate Memory, new generations of Chilean citizens reflect then events they barely remember along with those who lived it. Consistent with the ideology developed in The Battle of Chile of combining documentary and fiction, Guzman utilizes “memory” as subjectivist fiction (Rodriguez, 47) in Obstinate Memory.

As French philosopher Jacques Ranciere defines it, memory is a “work of fiction” Memory is subjectively constructed from an individual while viewing objective accounts (Ranciere, 158). Relating Ranciere’s theory to the film, Obstinate Memory includes youths and elders watching The Battle of Chile (objective), and later includes their reactions and reflections (subjective). Guzman uses the film as a way to access memory and does effectively as it sparks an inspired debate amongst university students, and emotional reflections from those who experience the terrors of that period. According to Ranciere, “Cinema is the art best equipped to represent the operations of memory because it is the combination of the gaze of the artist who decides and the mechanical gaze that records, of constructed images and chance images” (Ranciere, 161). The film reflects this quote as segments of the film show archival footage from The Battle of Chile that are cinematically edited by juxtaposing images of the citizens between now and then, while also creating spaces where citizens watch the three-part film in groups or individually.

Memory as fiction in Obstinate Memory does challenge the notion of truth and representation. Thomas Kublock explains that critics believe oral testimonies do not allow a true understanding of past experiences because memories can be mistaken and distorted (Kublock 275). For example, Ignacio struggles to remember and conveys this in a comical manner as he tries to play the soundtrack to the film “Beethoven’s Sonata”. Guzman introduces his uncle Ignacio and narrates, “He still has good memory. I think”. Guzman is not sure of his uncle’s ability to remember, therefore labeling his memory as subjectivist fiction. Although subjective memory challenges truth and representation, the film is definitely true to John King’s idea of Latin American Cinema. Obstinate Memory “explore[s] a fractured past and imagine[s] different futures” (King, 417). This film succeeds as it initiates discussions between students of what is right and wrong in order to build a better society.

The Battle of Chile and Obstinate Memory is an ideal combination of critical-realist films from Patricio Guzman as both incorporate fictional elements in the documentary category. Interestingly, recent Latin American Cinema has witnessed a reversal of this idea as documentary elements are incorporated in the fiction category. No, a 2012 film directed by Pablo Larrain, is based on true events of an advertising executive that creates plans to promote the NO campaign to oppose a plebiscite on the Chilean dictator. For authenticity, Larrain did various things: to recreate the look of the period, the film was shot on a 1983 U-matic video camera in a 4:3 ratio, he used many TV spots from 24 years ago that were seamlessly accompanied with new footage, and similar to The Battle of Chile, it was shot hand-help for spontaneous coverage (Sony Pictures Classics, 10). As Pablo Larrain’s brother and producer No expresses in the film’s Press Release, “Pablo wants the camera to be as much a participant in scenes as the actors. [He] likes his camera to get dirty” (Sony Pictures Classics, 9).

The Chilean filmmakers Pablo Larrain and Patricio Guzman seem to have adopted the style of filmmaking that Fernando Birri has established for Latin American Cinema. Although The Battle of Chile, Obstinate Memory and No are in different film categories, they are example of critical realist films with great cinematic value that reflect social change and truth. When films offer critical and truthful insight of the past, they will always remain significant. Whether documentary with fictional elements or vice-versa, it serves as a document of the past. Audiences can learn from cinema and gain knowledge on how to shape society’s future.


“Chile, the Obstinate Memory.” IMDb., n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2013.

“Glossary of Rouchian Terms.” Glossary of Rouchian Terms. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2013.

Icarus Films. “The Battle of Chile Press Release”. Press Release. 1998.

King, John. “Chilean Cinema in Revolution and Exile” in New Latin American Cinema: Volume Two: Studies of National Cinemas Ed. Michael T. Martin. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997. 397-419.

Kublock, Thomas. “History and Memory in Neoliberal Chile: Patricio Guzman’s Obstinate Memory and the Battle of Chile” Radical History Review, Issue 85, winter, 2003. 272-281.

No. Dir. Pablo Lorrain. Sony Pictures Classics. 2012. Film.

Obstinate Memory. Dir. Patricio Guzman. Icarus Films. 1997. Film.

Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. London: Continuum, 2006. Print.

Rodriguez, Juan Carlos. “The Post-Dictatorial Documentaries of Patricio Guzman”. Duke University, 2007. Print.

Sony Pictures Classics. “No Press Release”. Press Release. 2012.

The Battle of Chile. Dir. Patricio Guzman. Icarus Films. 1975-1978. Film.

Wallace, Victor and Barlow, John D. “Documentary as Participation: The Battle of Chile” in Show Us Life: Towards a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1984, p. 403-416.


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