My Imaginary Country: Patricio Guzmán’s galvanising film shows the power of grass-roots activism in Chile

A new documentary from filmmaker Patricio Guzmán explores the root causes and outcomes of the 2019 estallido social, “a social outburst that set Chile on fire”.

5 June 2023

By Maria Delgado

My Imaginary Country (2022) © Courtesy of New Wave Films
Sight and Sound

It is possible to read My Imaginary Country as a poetic dialogue with Patricio Guzmán’s two earliest films, which depicted the optimism of Salvador Allende’s first months in power – The First Year (1972) – and the struggles to pursue a democratic vision for the country: The Battle of Chile (1975). 

Guzmán’s work is as much about the past (how we construct history/ies) as it is about the present (how we understand the moment we are living in). Since Nostalgia for the Light (2010), his documentaries have dissected features of the Chilean landscape which are adroitly linked to the legacy of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. 

In My Imaginary Country, the inequalities of a democracy built on the foundations of a constitution drafted under Pinochet are presented as the root causes of the estallido social (what Guzmán terms “a social outburst [that] set Chile on fire”) that erupted on 18 October 2019. Student protests against a hike in metro fares sparked months of mass demonstrations and disturbances, which led two years later to the election of the left-winger Gabriel Boric – the world’s youngest elected head of state and the youngest president in Chile’s history. 

Guzmán’s film is structured around a series of interviews with women activists at the forefront of the protests: a photographer alleges she was shot in the eye by police while documenting their violence; a medic who attended to the wounded speaks of the dangers they faced. Guzmán was not in Chile when the protests broke out, but returned in 2020 to investigate what happened, acting on advice Chris Marker gave him when he was working on The Battle of Chile: “When you want to film a fire, you must be ready at the place where the first flame will appear.” He was too late – as he acknowledges in the measured, calm voiceover that is such a distinctive feature of his films – to witness the first flame, but instead captures the voices of those who were on the frontline, as a means of dissecting a defining moment for Chilean democracy. 

An anonymous protestor interviewed in My Imaginary Country (2022)

Guzmán, off camera, asks his interviewees probing questions: why don’t they trust politicians? What did people want most from the estallido social? What is the most dangerous thing that could happen here? Footage of the protests is deployed to support the women’s testimonies. Tear gas, water cannon and shots aimed at protesters show the aggressive military and police presence on the streets, with dangerous echoes of the Pinochet regime, – what political analyst Dr Claudia Hess terms “paying the price for not acknowledging or resolving the problems inherited from the dictatorship”. The graphic imagery of police violence is both brutal and shocking: “I can’t believe I’m in present-day Chile,” Guzmán comments as police fire in the camera’s direction. 

Ultimately, My Imaginary Country is a galvanising film, showing what this grass-roots activism has achieved. The scale of the movement is deftly captured by the camera sweeping up to photograph the 1.2 million people who marched to Santiago’s Plaza Baquedano on 25 October – what Guzmán calls the largest public protest in Chilean history. The writer Nona Fernández’s comments about the country being on fire are framed by footage of protesters chanting “Chile has woken up” and flames illuminating the large flag-waving crowds at night. The neoliberal culture in which everything and everyone has a price is challenged by the creative energy visible in the street art, the percussive street music created from the banging of pots and pans and the animated singing of the crowds.

Colectivo Las Tesis’s anthem for feminist agency shows a new model for collective leadership – indeed, Guzmán categorises the estallido social as “a movement without leaders”. Both student activist Valentina Miranda and Mapuche linguist Elisa Loncón are elected – as a member and president respectively – of the Chilean Constitutional Convention, tasked with rewriting the 1980 constitution. Guzmán shows the estallido social is about the very process of constructing an inclusive democracy, one that recognises and redresses the patriarchal abuses the women describe.

Demands for healthcare reforms, enhanced education opportunities and a new constitution propelled Gabriel Boric into power on a mandate of change. The aftermath of the September 2022 plebiscite on the redrafted constitution, which saw 62 per cent of voters reject the proposed changes, may temporarily slow down the filmmaker’s hopes that “the country we imagined will become reality”.

But in 2023, as the country begins a new constitution-writing process, the momentum that Guzmán identifies, with women at its core, drives a powerful vision for Chile – one linked to Allende’s democratic goals and attuned to a 21st-century sensibility committed to reimagining social equity across all aspects of its structures.

► My Imaginary Country is in UK cinemas from 9 June. 

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