There’s a Universe in These Little Details: An Interview with Patricio Guzmán

The Chilean director discusses "The Cordillera of Dreams," the value of a rare archive of protest footage, and the traces of memories.
Andrew Northrop

Above: The Cordillera of Dreams

When Patricio Guzmán returned to his former home of Santiago, Chile in the 1990s to film Chile: Obstinate Memory (1997) after the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship, he bought a print of his three-part documentary The Battle of Chile (1975–1979) with him, screening it to a younger generation of Chileans. The screenings induced tears and strong political responses from audiences; many of whom previously hadn’t seen images of Pinochet’s coup-d’état on film before. Another emotionally charged return to Santiago permeates his latest documentary The Cordillera of Dreams—the most directly personal in the trilogy that includes Nostalgia for the Light (2010) and The Pearl Button (2015). Presenting Santiago’s adjacent mountain range as a beautiful yet often under-appreciated witness to the city’s history, Guzmán unfolds the events of his own childhood and early filmmaking career, his formative interest in the paintings of the cordillera found on national matchboxes, his proximity to the coup through The Battle of Chile, his experience in a concentration camp, and his subsequent exile from the country.

Just as Guzmán’s career as a filmmaker is so intrinsically linked to these examinations, so is his admiration for Pablo Salas—a filmmaker who has continued to document protests in Santiago, and who miraculously survived unscathed by the Pinochet regime. Salas’s  significant archive is able to reconstruct only a portion of Chile’s fractured past, but each imprint adds to the hugely relatable core found within the trilogy of films—a unification of the human spirit. Guzmán so often taps into that feeling through the relatability of ephemeral objects: scraps of clothing, buttons, pieces of meteorites, paintings on matchboxes. People are always at the core of Guzmán’s films even when he’s dealing with gigantic landscapes, and The Cordillera of Dreams is no different.  

In person, Guzmán’s words are just as beautiful as the poignant voiceovers that guide you through his films. As he told me about the undocumented murder of Jorge Müller Silva—cinematographer for The Battle of Chile—my heart sank into my chest; a tangible reminder of how intensely Guzmán’s works continually try to fill in segments of a past hidden from its own citizens. In our conversation, Guzmán discusses the significance of Salas’s archive, how memory can be reconstructed through documentary filmmaking, revisiting the football stadium he was once detained in by the Pinochet regime, and stepping into the dictator’s former office. 

NOTEBOOK: I’m interested to know about your first ever encounter with Pablo Salas.

PATRICIO GUZMÁN: I found Pablo Salas twenty years ago. A very aggressive encounter. Pablo, for a very long time, drank a lot. To film like he does, you need a lot of strength, so he drank. And we had a confrontation. He said, “why are you coming here to film? I’m the one who comes here to film.” That was when the dictatorship of Pinochet was still going on—it was an aggressive encounter. Little by little, over twenty years, he started softening a bit and we became kind of friends—not much, but kind of… 

NOTEBOOK: What was it like working with his archive?

GUZMÁN: I knew his archive very well. With previous films I asked him for pieces of footage—The Case of Pinochet, Salvador Allende, Chile: Obstinate Memory—and paid him for them. It was great because he has an extraordinary film library, so we had a commercial relationship. Always very polite.

NOTEBOOK: When did it feel right to champion him directly in a film?

GUZMÁN: When I was looking for characters for this film, it felt like the moment had arrived for a long interview with him. I still needed characters, and I was thinking that Pablo would be the best for this, even though he does not have a direct relationship with the cordillera, and it worked out great. It’s actually the moment when Pablo became very open and warm with me and my crew.

NOTEBOOK: It’s stated in the film that his and other archives only account for about 5% of the atrocities committed by the dictatorship. It’s haunting to think about what wasn’t filmed...

GUZMÁN: What was filmed are the visible facts, we can’t film the invisible—torture, interrogation, prison—there’s no footage of this. There’s no footage of prisoners sitting on the floor waiting to be tortured. Maybe there is, and it’s in the hands of the army—it’s probable. But publicly, no: you enter the jail, and bam, the door closes. And the camera doesn’t go beyond there. That’s why Pablo says it is only 5%.

And today there’s other people who film—young people, many. Still, they can’t enter into the army spaces, you can’t film inside the barracks of the army. It’s incredible, it’s an unknown sector of society. Because before you couldn’t do this with the church either, but in the end you could: you could enter from the inside. But with the army they don’t let you in. It’s like a sector of the country that isn’t in the country. That’s incredible. But it happens here too, it’s the same everywhere. It’s a secret sector of society. 

Above: The Cordillera of Dreams

NOTEBOOK: How do you think people can address those invisible stories through filmmaking going forward? There’s so much history to recount, so many sinister moments that lie underneath… moments of absence that have been written over.

GUZMÁN: It’s a good question, as it has never been solved. Documentary filmmaking has limitations. One can get close with testimonies, those of people who have gone through torture that can recount it. You can approach it that way, and it’s always symbolic. You never see torture, and I don’t know if that would be the best because it is too brutal—you’d have to do another kind of operation to show it. Claude Lanzmann does this in Shoah. There are long testimonies of what it was like, and those are quite extraordinary. 

NOTEBOOK: I was also interested in the football stadium that you return to, as you return to it in Chile: Obstinate Memory as well. What was it like visiting that same space twenty years apart? 

GUZMÁN: There are places that one never forgets, and they change physically over time, but not for you. But I liked going back to the stadium. Most of all the exterior of it, because it’s in Chile: Obstinate Memory but very little – we mostly see the inside. It’s an extraordinary place, you could make more films about it, it is very interesting. There are engravings of names in the walls, in the most peculiar places. There are traces.

Above: The Pearl Button

NOTEBOOK: Those traces are something you explore a lot in this trilogy of films. You forge all these poignant connections to ephemeral things: the button, matchboxes, the paintings…

GUZMÁN: Yes, I really like to film small things. Floors, ceilings, walls, little details, letters, pencils [he points around the room]. There’s a universe in these little details. You could produce entire films from them. That’s what Alain Cavalier does, it’s fantastic. 

NOTEBOOK: Those smaller objects often contain the imprints of what happened to people during the dictatorship. But in this film, you also go to Pinochet’s former office, and that feels like such an important moment, because it’s there that you feel the imprint/ghost of him. What was it like entering that space?

GUZMÁN: It’s strange, because we initially went to that building in order to film the views of Santiago, because it’s very tall. And then we started going down, and we arrived in Pinochet’s office. We thought it would be closed, but it was all open. It’s abandoned and nobody cares about it. The entire building is open, but there is nobody there. Nobody wants to live in it. It’s like a building that should be thrown away—eliminated—but what’s there is so interesting.

NOTEBOOK: You talk about the neoliberal model that Pinochet’s regime installed in the country in the film, and a lot of the problems and inconsistencies caused by that have led to the current unrest in Chile. Has your relationship with the film changed since those events happened?

GUZMÁN: Yeah, we discovered a little piece and now the whole curtain has opened, and this seems special to me, because when we were filming we had no idea. Now it’s an advancement of that. That happens a lot with documentary.

Above: The Cordillera of Dreams 

NOTEBOOK: I can’t help thinking about Salas being out there continuing to document it all. How do you think he’s managed to stay safe all of this time?

GUZMÁN: It’s a miracle, you never know what can happen to you—you could receive a bullet, you could get hit, they could break your camera, one does not know. You’re always in danger. And you’re always looking for the right place to put yourself—a corner or far away—but it can always be dangerous. There is a certain sensibility to how Pablo defends himself from harm. It is completely animal-like thinking, “where? why? how much time can I film here? can I run this way?”—but you can never know for sure—it’s kind of emotional to be in that kind of danger. Some people like to get close to it. It’s a strange thing. It’s kind of suicidal. 

RENATE SACHSE [PRODUCER]: We really got to observe how Pablo moves when our cameraman Samuel Lahu was filming with him. He moves with the elegance of a cat—weaving between people and getting where he needs to be. He doesn’t care about the police—if someone tells him he can’t go one way, he will find another. He’s constantly thinking in that way.

GUZMÁN: Who was even better was Jorge Müller Silva, my cameraman for The Battle of Chile.He died, he was murdered. He was taken prisoner with his wife and he was shot dead, executed, and we don’t know where he was buried. He was almost 1 metre 90 tall, 27 years old and a genius cameraman… genius. The way he would compose his shots, the way he would move, the way he would walk, he was splendid—an example.

Above: The Battle of Chile: The Coup D’état 

NOTEBOOK: Pablo is carrying the torch in that way. Do you think Pablo feels proud and/or accomplished?

GUZMÁN: Pablo, yes, Pablo is very proud, of course. So was Silva, but they killed him.

NOTEBOOK: How do you find that people react to your films, especially Chileans?

GUZMÁN: Chileans get very emotional with The Battle of Chile—they start to cry. There are people who get kind of paralysed because they didn’t know that this much was filmed. And the same thing happens with every film. Reactions are always interesting.  

Thanks to Maureen Gueunet for assistance with translation.

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