“I spent my days as one of the Disappeared in a children’s home,” says Macarena Aguiló at the start of The Chilean Building (El edificio de los Chilenos). “There were many girls playing in a large courtyard.”
As she speaks, you see photos of children, in a courtyard, at play, seemingly familiar. And yet it’s hard not to feel chilled by the term she’s used, the Disappeared. For her and her young cohorts, that means Augusto Pinochet, whose regime in Chile disappeared almost 3,000 opponents during the 1970s and ‘80s, imprisoning and exiling many others. Aguiló was a child of parents who resisted, in their case, working with the Revolutionary Left Movement (Spanish Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria, or the MIR).
Aguiló was at one point “used as a hostage by the National Intelligence Agency (DINA) to achieve her father’s surrender,” as an archival TV report tells you. “I was playing in my front yard when they came for me and put me in a truck,” she remembers, “We drove around for a while.” Her father did not give himself up (though, as he recalls here, this decision was traumatizing), and she was eventually released. Her parents then took another decision, sending her away, along with other children of MIR parents, first to Paris and then to the Chilean House, in Cuba.
As she recounts in her superb documentary, the Project House accommodated some 60 children, all assigned to “social families.” These were headed by about 20 adults serving the rebellion as foster parents while their counterparts remained in Chile, fighting, being imprisoned and tortured, being killed. Aguiló interviews her social father and social brothers and sisters, as well as her biological parents, patching together memories that are sometimes similar and coherent, and other times jarringly fragmented. The film—screening this week at the Maysles Cinema—is at once evocative and unnerving, a look back at a mostly unknown history, one rendered here, appropriately, in impressions, vivid or hazy, painful or pleasant.
Such contradictions remain remarkably unresolved in The Chilean Building. It’s a smart, strikingly effective choice, as the story told reflects the story lived, so confused and confusing, so inspiring and ripe for each participant’s necessary projection. Among these, the adults recall structure and goals amid the seeming chaos. “There was a strategy involved,” says her social father (all Aguiló‘s subjects are unidentified, except by the roles they describe), one based on political ideals. They wrote “a document,” her mother recalls (“Like always,” jokes her current partner, as they share a smile over the MIR’s faith in such structures). “It reflected a discussion within the MIR, the Left, and all revolutionaries, in terms of our chosen lifestyles, our relationships, our parenting, and the type of education we were struggling for.” Their ideals included the prominence of women in the movement, rather assuming they would be at home with their children: the women’s sacrifices matched those of their men; the adults worked as a collective, idealistic and committed, sharing resources and anticipating a future when families might be reunited and parents returned alive.
While Aguiló‘s social father underlines the good news in this difficult situation, namely, that he has a daughter in Aguiló whom he adores (and whose parents survived), other caretakers remember how difficult their daily lives could be, as they awaited news from the front. “You have to tell little boys, when you have to tell little girls, they killed your daddy, or someone else died,” says one social mother. But, she adds, you also “tell them a story, because it’s not just that they died, they were heroes n that day, their death was heroic… and they were brave comrades.” Even now, her voice is distressed as she tells this story, the camera close on her face, which remains fierce.
If the children were mostly unaware of the politics, they certainly felt the effects of these losses and attendant anxieties, their own and those of their peers. Aguiló‘s interviews with the children, now adults, are especially revealing and also difficult. Her social brother, Gilberto, now an artist, provides animation to illustrate some of their dreams and nightmares: babies dropped into homes shaped like holes in the ground, children smiling together, flying in the air, and also children filled with fear and uncertainty. “She had chosen a clear and concise action,” says one young man of his mother then, “And I could not go with her.” A woman remembers, “Our parents were over there trying to get Pinochet out, but we were also having a hard time here. We were a bit abandoned, I think.”
A bit. “I don’t know if they’re emotionally prepared to speak. I think they haven’t spoken of anything, people who haven’t spoken of their suffering. People who don’t speak about how much it hurt to lose everything, so many things,” observes one woman, “I don’t think my mom has. She feels our relationship is so fragile and the possibility of an encounter has been fragile that it’s not worth risking the tension over a conversation.” She nods. The interview ends, and the tension—wherever it’s repressed—persists. As the woman notes, this seems a mistake to her, “The need to not risk damaging that which is dangling from a very narrow thread.”
Aguiló, for her part, risks the tension. Throughout the film she returns to a case full of letters she received from her mother during her time at the Project Home, letters full of optimism but also expressing how much she misses her young daughter. Now, her mother says, “I was trying to justify myself in your eyes.” The women look closely at one another, their eyes wide open as they share the daunting impossibility of such an effort.