Battle of Chile:
Struggle of a People without Arms

by Victor Wallis

from Jump Cut, no. 21, Nov. 1979, pp. 8-9
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005


  • (Part III. PEOPLE'S POWER — not yet completed)

Imagine a live, primetime TV debate between a left-wing student leader and a conservative senator. No commercial interruptions; plenty of rapid-fire exchanges; above all, a nationwide audience overwhelmingly polarized behind one or other of the speakers. This is just one episode of THE BATTLE OF CHILE, with the debate scene shot straight off the flickering tube. It epitomizes, however, the dramatic quality of the raw material which has made possible one of the great documentaries of all time. Even this characterization is perhaps too limiting, though, for as the documentary technique is carried to perfection, the result oversteps the didactic bounds of that category and comes to evoke emotions that we normally associate more with works of fiction.

THE BATTLE OF CHILE personifies the class struggle in a way that has never been done before. It does so in terms that are universally intelligible, while at the same time carrying an authenticity that could never be achieved through merely symbolic figures. In this sense, it goes beyond all previous "people's films." The masses here are not merely participating; they are, in effect, writing their own lines. As for the ruling class, it does not have to be portrayed by professional actors; its own faces show more of its character than could the most carefully chosen stereotypes.

But beyond all this, the film maintains a level of excitement which is unknown in most documentaries and almost unimaginable in one of such length (191 min.). The immediate reason for this is yet another step in the perfection of the film's genre, namely, that all the contending positions which come into play are presented in action. Not only are there no professional performers, but even the public figures who do appear are almost always shown "live" — never in any extended interview situation. The only significant use of the interview approach is in eliciting the completely unrehearsed responses of the film's ultimate protagonists: the politicized non-politicians on both sides of the confrontation.

The camera is everywhere — on the streets, in the living rooms, in the factories, the offices, the neighborhoods, the meeting halls, in the presidential palace, and in parliament. Coming to the scene in the midst of the prolonged crisis which had begun with Salvador Allende's election in 1970, it bears direct witness to every major episode of his final months in office, from the March 1973 congressional campaign to the September coup. As if to underline the camera's omnipresence, there is one sequence added to the film from the work of an Argentine TV cameraman, who filmed his own death from the gunfire of a Chilean army officer.

The moment of swirling and blurring which records this act comes at a dividing point in the course of events (the June 29 coup-attempt); it ends Part I of the film and is repeated in the opening frames of Part II. Although the hero/victim was not a member of the BATTLE OF CHILE collective, the emphasis given to his sacrifice is a clear statement of the filmmakers' guiding conviction: that they themselves, along with their medium, have a central role to play in the class struggle.

The perfection of the documentary is thus assimilated in yet a third way with the peak of artistic achievement. If the focus on "real people" maximizes authenticity, and if the direct filming of conflict maximizes excitement, so also — on the director's part — the fullest commitment to the role of observer reflects the most complete immersion in the reality that one is filming. The director goes beyond controlling the movements of the film's characters. The characters move themselves, but the director transmits, compresses, and heightens the interaction by knowing what their movements will be.

In the case at hand, director Patricio Guzman doesn't tell any of his subjects what to do, but, as he has since made clear, (1) he anticipates their actions with as much assurance as if he had so directed them. The example he refers to involves the filming of a street battle, but the political understanding in question is reflected in every aspect of the filmmaking process. At the most immediate level, it dictated that the project should be kept unpublicized, and that each day's footage should be promptly hidden. More generally, Guzman's political awareness dictated a basic judgment about the film's objective — namely, that it could best serve the revolution not by promoting any single interpretation of the events, but rather by recording the Chilean experience as thoroughly and completely as possible, with full attention to the wide range of forces that could be found on both sides of the conflict.

That so all-inclusive an approach could be applied without sacrificing any of the film's intensity is a tribute both to the filmmakers and to the Chilean working class.

The filmmakers knew where to be, how to get there, and what to do with the material. They gained the trust of those for whom the truth was important (e.g., workers debating the government's strategy), while using appropriate subterfuge against those who had something to hide (e.g., a bourgeois household, which they entered posing as representatives of the conservative TV network). And when the footage was finally recovered in Cuba, months after the coup, they applied the full measure of their skill and insight to shaping the final product: alternating scenes of individuals and of crowds, of talking and action, of leaders and constituents, of friends and enemies, of conciliators and intransigents. In terms of the film's presentation, the only problems I found were with the narration (which said too little at some points and too much at others) and, in one instance, with the repeating of a particular demonstration sequence in a context that jarred the chronological framework. These problems seem minor, however, in comparison with the film's positive qualities.

When all else has been said, though, what remains the most exceptional aspect of this film is the subject matter itself: "the struggle of a people without arms." As to the immediate outcome of this struggle, there is never any doubt, for the film opens with the act which buried Allende's "legal road to socialism" — the bombing of the presidential palace. But the perspective this gives us in no way diminishes the film's impact. We know that the military threat was in varying degrees present all along, but if anything, this makes the workers' advances even more impressive. For a North American audience, in particular, it is a continuous revelation to feel the depth of the people's fighting spirit — in their demonstrations, their meetings, their performance of vital daily services, in their spontaneous comments, and, as the end draws near, in their embryonic acts of resistance.

But while we identify with the workers, we also ask ourselves whether there is any way they could have won. The film does not presume to answer this question, but it provides eloquent examples of the people's frustration at not being able to take stronger measures of control and self-defense. We hear factory workers demanding firm leadership from the government, and we hear working class housewives calling for the distribution of arms. All this comes, however, only during the final two months, by which time the Armed Forces have already seized the initiative. With reactionary violence endemic, we can well appreciate the futility of Allende's continued emphasis on the legal process, but at the same time it seems clear that any hope for building an effective popular counterattack is already too late.

If the key to a workers' victory is to be found, it is not in the period covered by the film itself. The film begins only after Allende has been in office for more than two years. What it shows are, in effect, the final stages of the battle, after the prevailing strategy on the side of the Left has already been irrevocably determined. This strategy, embodied mainly by the Communist Party but also accepted by Allende, was essentially one of doing whatever was necessary to keep the Armed Forces' leadership neutral. It was assumed that this could be achieved as long as the government respected the Constitution, in particular, by not allowing any expropriations to be carried out except through the regular legislative process — a restriction which in practice, after 1971, meant no expropriations at all. Adhering to this limitation, the idea was to win over the "progressive" sectors of the middle class and to isolate and discredit the Right.

The alternative strategy is still expressed in the film, but with less real hope of success than it had had at an earlier point. According to this approach, as expressed within Allende's coalition by the Socialist Party leadership and from outside by the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left), any notion of Armed Forces neutrality was in the long run illusory. A direct clash with the bourgeoisie was inevitable and indeed had already been taking place ever since the first plant shutdowns following Allende's election. The "middle class," at least in its commercial sectors, was hopelessly tied to the big bourgeoisie. The only chance for a Left victory lay in extending the active role of the working class on all fronts, including organizing the unorganized (typically in the smaller businesses) and encouraging rank-and-file politicization within the Armed Forces — an approach for which a case could be made in legal terms as long as the objective was to counteract plotting against the duly constituted government.

The last real choice between these two alternatives had come in the aftermath of the "bosses' strike" of October 1972. (2) The workers at that time had spontaneously taken over their closed factories in order to keep the economy going. In so doing, they had rescued Allende from the first concerted effort to overthrow him. The means they had used, i.e., the factory takeovers, were of course illegal, but it was the bourgeoisie that had broken the rules first by going outside established channels to accomplish an essentially political objective. Allende at that point had the option of declaring the factory takeovers a fait accompli and accepting the shift of the political struggle to a new plane involving the rapid extension of organs of popular self-rule, all of which he could have justified by arguing that the enterprise owners had themselves chosen to abdicate their economic responsibilities. He chose, however, the opposite course. Yielding to the sanctimonious outrage of the bourgeoisie, he agreed to restore the seized properties in return for what amounted to a truce, to be enforced by military representation in the Cabinet, for the remainder of the period up until the March 1973 congressional elections.

If there was any single act which interrupted the workers' forward movement, that was it. And for what? Even with a major electoral gain by Allende's Popular Unity (UP) coalition, no serious observer could expect it to win the 50+% that would have significantly improved its legal position. This was not because its programs were anti-popular, but rather for two other reasons. First, foreign and domestic reaction had effectively counteracted many of the advances in people's immediate living conditions, and second, there was still a sizeable unorganized sector of the working class which believed the promises of Moderate opposition parties (especially the Christian Democrats) to give them the same social benefits that the Left was trying to provide.

What the workers' alternative represented was not only the direct realization of measures which were beyond the reach of the government, but also a tangible demonstration to the unorganized of the basis on which they themselves could run their affairs. In THE BATTLE OF CHILE, we see some of the continuing examples of such popular control, in both factories and neighborhoods, (3) but its scope was not as great as it would have been without Allende's retreat.

Of course, no one can say for sure whether an unchecked workers' advance in November could have withstood a right-wing counterattack. What is certain, however, is that the military was not yet prepared, at that stage, to carry out a successful coup. (This is admitted even by a strong defender of Allende's concessions.)(4) Allende evidently hoped that a head-on clash could be postponed indefinitely. This made it impossible for him to recognize, or perhaps even to consider, that the risk level for the working class might be lower at that moment than at a later date. What ended up happening was that the Right got itself a grace period. The popular forces acted with deliberate restraint during the electoral campaign. And the bourgeoisie, disappointed by the voting results — which brought gains for Popular Unity and ended any hope for impeaching Allende — had a chance to make a fresh start after March in its insurrectionary project.

The rest of the story is unfolded for us on the screen. The opposed forces are no longer well-matched, but this is not immediately apparent. The Left from the outset has far outstripped the Right in its numbers of active supporters, and this politicized mass remains visually impressive right up to the end. At first, it can still win some real victories against right-wing obstruction. Mass demonstrations thus succeed in discrediting the impeachment campaign against Allende's ministers and also in isolating the basically political strike that occurred at one of the nationalized copper mines. But once the Armed Forces move into action (they never really retreat after June 29), the game is essentially up. The disintegration of the Left proceeds apace, being in fact speeded up rather than reversed by the awareness of impending disaster.

For the organized workers, the stakes have been raised too high to permit any turning back, and we watch several of them as they say that they would sooner die than give up their gains. For Allende, on the other hand, the stranglehold of the Right grows so tight that he accepts without a word of protest the violent intimidation campaign which the military carries out against these same workers in their factories. The workers criticize the government for its weaknesses. The Communist union leader (though not identified as such) suggests that they don't understand the complexity of the issues. Only at a ceremonial level can the two sectors act in concert. On September 4 they join forces for the biggest demonstration yet. On September 11 comes the coup.

In the debate on Chile, which has permeated the Left worldwide since 1973, each side has drawn sustenance from what happened in those final months. In an immediate sense, both sides are right. It is undoubtedly true, as the Euro-communists say, that Allende, for all his moderation, ended up defying the bourgeoisie by refusing to abandon the Left's program entirely. But it is also true, as their left-wing critics argue, that Allende's hope of avoiding repression merely by respecting legal norms was without foundation.

As a document, THE BATTLE OF CHILE provides materials for both sides of this argument. The only pertinent omission it might be charged with is its failure to show the full extent to which the official Left ended up demoralizing its militant base. (During the final weeks, for example, Allende publicly denounced rank-and-file sailors who had been organizing to defend his government against their pro-coup officers.) By not accentuating this level of breakdown on the Left, the film rescues the UP leadership from at least the bitterest charges that might be made against it. On the other hand, though, any such possible benefit to the "moderate" position is more than counterbalanced by the positive view the film gives us of the class-conscious workers. It is their words and actions that account for the film's tremendous emotional impact. THE BATTLE OF CHILE thus remains before all else a film of the people. As such, it shows us some of the hidden human potential that emerges under crisis conditions, and in so doing, it provides support and inspiration for the more radical approach.

By not taking an explicit position in the Left's debate, the film will remain accessible to all sectors of the Left in the future. By abstaining from showing us the more disgraceful moments of the UP's debacle, it encourages us to cast any criticism of the UP leadership in terms of specific errors of approach and strategy rather than in terms of facile epithets of betrayal. But by showing the insufficiently tapped militance of the Chilean workers, it gives us some sense of the depth of the UP's missed opportunity. Revolution, after all, depends above all upon the consciousness and commitment of the oppressed masses. Where the UP leaders lacked faith in what this could achieve, THE BATTLE OF CHILE offers us a gripping and compelling corrective.


I am grateful to Gabriel Smirnow, as well as to the editors, for their comments on an earlier draft.

1. For this and other points regarding the making of the film, see the
important interview with Guzman conducted by Julianne Burton, in Socialist Revolution, No. 35 (Sept.-Oct. 1977).

2. For a full account of the balance of forces during that crisis, see the forthcoming Monthly Review Press book by Gabriel Smirnow (published in Mexico as La revolucíon desarmada: Chile, 1970-1973).

3. For some fascinating insights into the success of the workers' efforts, see Juan G. Espinosa and Andrew S. Zimbalist, Economic Democracy: Workers' Participation in Chilean Industry, 1970-1973 (New York, 1978).

4. Edward Boorstein, Allende's Chile: An Inside View (New York, 1977), p. 212.

BATTLE OF CHILE is distributed by Tricontinental Film Center, 333 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10014. Tricontinental also distributes the Cuban films reviewed in JUMP CUT's Special Sections on Cuban Cinema in the last two issues.