The Cordillera of Dreams

“Nostalgia for Chile”

Antonio Gómez (Tulane University)

During the last decade, Patricio Guzmán (b. Santiago, Chile, 1941) has made three notable documentaries that vicariously reconstruct the geography of Chile, the country where he grew up and became a filmmaker. Nostalgia de la luz (2010) shows the northern deserts and their pure skies, El botón de nácar (2015), the seashore of the southern archipelagos, and La cordillera de los sueños (2019), the vast mountain range that separates Chile from the rest of the world and turns it into an island where “time is always slower.” But this first-person trilogy does not only deal with landscapes and geographical imaginaries; it also reflects on time and history. In the opening sequence of the most recent film, Guzmán states: “Crossing the Cordillera is like arriving in a place that is in a faraway past.” This illusion that the past is a place where one can travel colors the documentarian’s sense of time. In the three films, Guzmán speaks pensively about his childhood: for example, his passion for astronomy in Nostalgia de la luz and the memory of a childhood friend who drowned in El botón de nácar. But in La cordillera de los sueños, this turns into an overt assertion: towards the end of the film the house where he grew up in Santiago is digitally reconstructed from its current ruinous state, as he makes a wish that metonymically combines his own affective impulses with those of the nation: “My wish is that Chile recover its childhood and its joy.”

Patricio Guzmán yearns to recover the past. It is the melancholy effect of a life lived in exile and works made from a distance. But it wasn’t until this last film that he, by then in his late seventies, came clean about this effort, and about his obsession with the 1973 coup d’état that ousted the socialist government led by Salvador Allende (who died during the attack on the presidential palace) and started a 17-year military dictatorship. “I have never talked about the loneliness that has accompanied me since that September 11, 1973,” he says towards the end of the film, and he qualifies his monumental work La batalla de Chile – the film he was shooting when the coup took place – as “the mirror of a past that haunts me.” Chile, Allende, the coup, and Pinochet have been his only topic in twenty films over half a century. That is why the claim Guzmán made in a screening and discussion of the film hosted online by The Sanctuary for Independent Media in June 2020 that his 2010 film Nostalgia de la luz had been the start of a new chapter of his work, finally leaving the coup behind, is puzzling. Aren’t these three films mainly, if not only, about the dictatorship and its aftermath? Nostalgia de la luz presents the Atacama Desert as the stage for both the search for the origin of the universe in the state-of-the-art astronomical research centers in the region and the search for the bodies of the disappeared who were buried somewhere in the desert by a group of women. El botón de nácar relates the history of oppression and discrimination against indigenous peoples in southern Chile, in the 19th century and today, to the persecution of officials of the Allende administration during the Pinochet years. Calama, the town in the Atacama desert where the women who are searching for the remains of the disappeared live in Nostalgia de la luz, and Dawson Island in Patagonia, the site for the reclusion of indigenous peoples in the 19th century and the incarceration of political prisoners in the 1970s and 80s, central to El botón de nácar, are faraway, extremely isolated places that still evoke the history of the dictatorship.

Guzmán himself narrates La cordillera de los sueños, as he has done most of his films – we have gotten used to his voice. But there is something in his diction in this documentary that alerts us to the openness, the confessional attitude he is adopting this time. Even those who do not understand Spanish may notice something eerie about his voice here. The rhythm of his speech, the pauses he introduces between words, and the mix of gravity and intimacy in his tone suggest he is at his most vulnerable. He is, of course, speaking frankly about the defeat of his generation and about how he lost not only his utopic youth but also his country – he reckons he has lived in exile longer than in Chile. But I think we should also perceive that this is not just nostalgia; he feels guilt – for being one of those “who fled,” for not staying in Chile, for not being a Chilean filmmaker, maybe even for not dying in Chile. Guzmán’s way of expressing this remorse is to summon his alter ego to screen – the filmmaker “who stayed.” During and after the dictatorship, Pablo Salas shot thousands of hours of video footage in the streets of Santiago. His enormous, obsolete archive of VHS tapes and computer drives is the flip-side of Guzmán’s filmography. Guzmán speaks of Salas’s work as a “time machine,” and in what could be seen as a provocation or just an awkward moment, Salas declares to Guzmán, to the camera, and to us: “I won’t emigrate to Argentina, Brazil, or anywhere else. This is where I’m from.”

I contend that failing to see this sense of guilt in Guzmán would turn him into a victim of history and would make of La cordillera de los sueños, and the personal trilogy as a whole, just an archeological undertaking, instead of the mea culpa that it actually is. I do not mean to question the value of Guzmán’s prodigious work, or to suggest – in gratuitous psychoanalytic terms – that he is seeking absolution or redemption, but rather to make sense of his sudden transfiguration into a repentant exile. Playing with counter factuality and alternate histories, in an exercise that parallels the digital reconstruction of his childhood home, he dares to imagine who he could have become if he had not left Chile, what his films would have been like. He cannot think of a stronger determinant of his work than location, geography, perspective: filming in Chile or out of Chile is the only measure of the pertinence of his work, and the only instrument of his own happiness. But he fails to notice that Pablo Salas is as haunted by the past as himself, as he explains: “I got involved with this and I’m stuck in it, by my own choice. All I want is to preserve a trace of what the dictatorship was like, how we live, how we used to live, to show that to the young so that none of it is forgotten. And you realize that people don’t want this.” Guzmán seems to have not heard of Leonardo Sciascia’s advice that “He who made the mistake of leaving cannot make the mistake of returning.”

“The Stuff of Dreams”

Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky (University of Chicago)

The Cordillera of Dreams is the third installment of Patricio Guzmán’s cosmos series. Together all three films encompass the terms of the Chilean territory: Nostalgia for the Light (2010) treats the heavens and the land underfoot (the Atacama); The Pearl Button (2015), the sea to the west; The Cordillera, the Andes mountain range to the east. The trilogy renders Chile an island; by virtue of its geography it is isolated, and thus its culture and identity are unusually concentrated. But while Guzmán’s portraits of this purportedly peripheral nation cast it as singular (e.g. the Atacama is the driest place on earth, uniquely situated to observe the cosmos; the Andes mountain range is the longest belonging to any single nation), Guzmán also centers and generalizes the place. In Chile’s waters one finds life itself; in its cordillera (or mountain range) the most important poetic laws; in its experiment with a democratic socialist revolution, the universal dream of justice.

The filmmaker’s challenge to himself in each film is to bring together seemingly impossible temporal and spatial scales: a reflection on the stars or the seas or the mountains always winds its way back to the coup d’etat that ended Salvador Allende’s socialist experiment and established Augusto Pinochet’s brutal seventeen-year dictatorship. Guzmán’s vision is unabashedly totalizing and humanistic, while also materialist in its constant insistence on the indexical “traces”—bones, buttons, film and video—that are the bases of actual knowledge.

Twenty-five minutes into The Cordillera of Dreams, the film begins to make its turn toward Chilean history. Until this point, a painter, two sculptors, a volcanologist, a musician, a writer and Guzmán’s own voice-over narration have waxed poetic about the cordillera, accompanied by postcard-worthy aerial views of snow-capped peaks—all in the romantic key. But at twenty-five minutes in, Guzmán reminds us of his 1975-9 film, The Battle of Chile, edited from the footage his team of five filmed every day for a period of several months—first of the popular enthusiasm for Allende’s project and then of the conflicts that would end in the coup. Commenting on its continued life in the present, Guzmán says that the film is like the reflection of the past that pursues him still. Indeed, the last image of Part III of The Battle of Chile becomes an iconic image of Nostalgia for the Light, the first film of the trilogy.

Of course, there is nothing especially surprising about this intertextual self-citation; it is standard in Guzmán work. And yet, I would like to bring out a certain thread that has been weaving its way through Guzmán’s oeuvre and that achieves new articulation in La Cordillera. It is the notion of the dream with its double sense: there are the dreams associated with sleep, which are often filled with the disordered memories of what has been already lived; and there are the dreams of the future, the aspirations and hopes and yearnings for a time yet to come. In La Cordillera of Dreams, the dream finally announces its thematic presence explicitly, in the title.

Over the final shot of The Battle of Chile, which depicts a barren landscape of the Atacama desert, we hear the voice-over of Ernesto Malbrán, a college friend of Guzmán’s. He plays a prominent role in Part III of The Battle of Chile where he is shown conducting a series of concrete lessons in a factory about what is actually required to transform a bourgeois capitalist economy into a centrally planned worker-directed socialist one. In the last minutes of The Battle of Chile, one worker makes the case to Malbrán that supporters of Allende must be armed, that the dream of a democratic road to socialism must be given up and that Allende must marshal the power of the state to forcibly impose the revolution. “Now is our chance to do it. We have to do it now or never. Because the enemy knows what’s in store for him,” the mine worker says. As the next image slowly zooms out from the saltpeter mine, it reveals a flat and empty Atacama landscape. Malbrán delivers the last line of the film in voice-over, “Let’s walk, comrade. We’ll see each other around, comrade.” This shot conjures the two missing figures—Malbrán and the worker—walking toward the horizon in this bare, otherworldly landscape; it is an image that evokes the dreamy no place/good place of utopia and raises an open question about the future. Of course, the viewer (and the filmmaker) know—as neither the worker nor Malbrán could have known—that this battle would be lost, that Allende’s experiment would fail. But the outcome of the “war” remained open, the film suggests.

Malbrán reappears in Chile, Memoria Obstinada (1997), which features Guzmán returning to Chile to screen The Battle of Chile for the first time, but this time rather than discussing the fine points of centralized planning, Malbrán adopts a new, more metaphorical language—the language of the dream. Considerably aged, Malbrán now summarizes: “The Popular Unity [Allende’s coalition] was a ‘ship of dreamers’ [nave de soñadores], propelled by a collective dream, and which was shipwrecked.” Malbrán’s words also bring Chile Memoria Obstinada to an end. This time he addresses the camera directly in a room full of his own students. Returning to his earlier metaphor, he says, “In that ship of madmen, I feel happy that I was a crewman. But what I’d like to say is the following: in this difficult moment in which the models have fallen and ideologies are practically useless, we should accept the obligation to transform ourselves in living witnesses so that the young people, who are looking everywhere for something to grab hold of, so that they know that this isn’t a shipwreck; it is a small earthquake, and nothing else.” Again, Malbrán suggests that the defeat of Allende signifies not the loss of a war, but a temporary setback. But notice that the substance of the dream is losing definition and specificity. If it was once the dream of a socialist society with a worker-run planned economy, now it is the dream of justice. Who doesn’t want justice?

The theme of the dream comes back in The Cordillera of Dreams. Here, too, it asserts its double sense as that which deals in past memories and with future projects: the cordillera is the metaphor for Guzmán’s dreams about Chile; it is the witness to the events of the past, including the coup. In the final moments of The Cordillera, Guzmán’s voice-over accompanies an extreme longshot of a rock climber scaling the face of an impossible mountain. Guzmán confesses that he had never discussed the loneliness that had accompanied him since the events of September 11, 1973. In the film’s final moments, he evokes Malbrán’s language to describe the coup: “It is like a hidden anguish, as if something had collapsed under my feet, like an earthquake.” He goes on, “In my soul, the smoke from the ashes of my destroyed house never cleared. I would like for it to be possible to rebuild it and start again.” The film ultimately ends with Guzmán making a wish upon a meteorite: it is the wish that Chile recuperate her infancy and her joy. The dream of socialism has lost almost all definition.

In this last film of the trilogy, Guzmán has not relinquished the dream, but it persists more as a placeholder. In linking it to the central mysteries of human life—where do we come from; why are we here; where have we been—he imbues the “dream of justice” with the sublimity of awesome natural phenomena. But by the end of The Cordillera of Dreams, while Guzmán seems to extend the timeline for rebuilding, for reconstructing, for recapturing infancy and all the joy that attends the active process of forging a new kind of society — thus placing the project on a geological time scale — his film simultaneously emits the melancholy suspicion that because it wasn’t then, in 1973, it will never be. What was lost in 1973 was not the battle, but the war. The dream becomes myth. As elegant and elegiac the package, I don’t know if I can accede to the film’s quiescent undercurrent.

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