The first difficulty in making a film about Chile, is actually getting Chile to fit into a film.– Director Chris Marker
In the opening minutes of Patricio Guzmán’s 1972 documentary The First Year (El Primer Año), we’re told Salvador Allende, Chile’s doomed 28th president, kept a copy of Che Guevara’s collected works on his desk. Within this book was the following dedication: “To Salvador Allende, who is aiming for the same thing by other means, Che.” For anyone with even cursory knowledge of Chilean history in general, and Allende’s fate in particular, the dedication is heartbreaking. These emotions are only amplified when one watches The First Year, which covers Allende’s transformative first year in power.
Guevara and Allende were doctors and revolutionaries, the former a hardened guerilla, the latter a lifelong politician. Guevara cut his teeth as a guerilla during the Cuban Revolution in the late ’50s. Allende was a fixture in Chilean electoral politics for decades before assuming the presidency in 1970–his revolution culminated in the ballot box. Guevara would be killed in 1967 attempting to foment revolution in Bolivia, his military fatigues having been his only outfit for years. The bespectacled Allende would take his own life in September 1973 in the midst of a US-backed military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet.
In Guzman’s The First Year, Allende’s death, the Chilean coup, and the subsequent birth of neoliberalism both has and has not happened. As an artifact of cultural memory, this film’s afterlife is underlined by optimism, which we see performed on screen, and the violence that awaits it after the cameras stop rolling.
The revolutionary turn in filmmaking known as Third Cinema, as espoused by directors Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino in their 1969 manifesto Towards a Third Cinema, demanded a self-conscious cinema that strove towards national liberation, and that is exactly what unfolds Guzmán’s film. Filmed between September 1970 and November 1971, The First Year uses much of its runtime to function as a gallery of the faces of Chile’s proletariat and sub-proletariat, the newly liberated who have been violently exploited by a “waltz of imperialisms” for centuries.
Early on, a camera glides through the middle of two long rows of miners; some smile at the technical curiosity of being filmed, while others stare with an air of fatigue draped over them. Elsewhere, a group of Mapuche people, an indigenous people that have fought off various colonialists for centuries, led by elderly women, stage a land occupation to celebrate Allende’s victory–their action serves as a preface to agrarian reforms. Later in The First Year, an immense crowd of supporters welcome Fidel Castro, then-prime minister of revolutionary Cuba, as he begins a tour of the country.
At times, The First Year feels like a slower-moving version of Dziga Vertov’s hyper-dynamic Man with a Movie Camera (1972). Where Vertov crafted a symphony film dedicated to modernity in general and the burgeoning Soviet Union in particular, Guzmán’s film is similarly a dual ode to the revolutionary potential of Latin America beyond Cuba and a celebration of decades of organizing in Chile. This is an active cinema for an active audience, as it heeds the call of Third Cinema by being a work that “attempts to intervene in the situation as an element providing thrust or rectification…it provides discovery through transformation”.
The “intervention” is that of the filmic serving as record, as if all of the miners, indigenous peoples, and activists look at the camera to say, “This is what we have fought for, and if they take it from us, you have seen what we will lose.” The First Year ends by listing a series of violent actions undertaken by enemies of the Allende government. “The bourgeoisie is raising its head,” our narrator says, “but in doing so, it’s showing it.”
Of course, everything would be lost in the coming years as the Chilean military, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and the American intelligence apparatus waited in the wings. Where Allende’s Popular Unity coalition government nationalized various key industries, including copper (Chile was and remains the world’s most copper-rich nation), Pinochet’s “shock doctrine” would see privatization and cuts to government spending as the order of the day. This would be a free market for unfree people.
While The First Year is essential viewing for any student of film (and the documentary form specifically), Latin America, and the Cold War, amongst many other subjects, the public life of the film has unfortunately been a quiet one. Initially released in 1972, The First Year was never officially screened in North America, having mostly garnered attention in Chile and France, as French filmmaker Chris Marker would produce a French version of the film. Unlike contemporary works such as The Hour of the Furnaces (La Hora de los Hornos, 1968), directed by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, and Guzmán’s own episodic Battle of Chile (La Batalla de Chile), which documents the coup against Allende, The First Year doesn’t (yet) sit within the annals of Latin American filmmaking. This, of course, could be because most of the film’s existing prints were lost or destroyed following the coup.
The prints’ destruction proved that authoritarianism “creates new forms of exclusion and thus new forms of social participation and identification”. In Pinochet’s Chile, a nation in which terror was ubiquitous, Guzmán’s memory and the collective memories of those in the film were forcibly erased. Films like The First Year play a crucial role in how nations negotiate and re-negotiate their self-image, and its reemergence is yet another step forward for post-Pinochet Chile.
Fifty years after the coup, “the original September 11th”, New York-based distributor Icarus Films is releasing a 2k restoration of The First Year. The film’s run will begin at New York’s Anthology Film Archives before moving on to other North American cities. Beyond commemorating a half-century since the coup, The First Year is being granted a new life during a transition period in Latin America. Over the last several years, a number of leftists have been elected to office, most notably Gustavo Petro in Colombia, the return of Luiz Inácio in Brazil, and Gabriel Boric in Chile. These individuals and the movements that propelled them into office embody a new hope for a continent all too familiar with coups, outside intervention, and authoritarian figures. However, as The First Year reminds us, the enemy is always waiting and will not show mercy on its enemies, whether they carry ballots or bullets.
Gómez-Barris, Macarena. Where Memory Dwells: Culture and State Violence in Chile. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
Solanas, Fernando and Getino, Octavio. “Towards a Third Cinema.” In New Latin American Cinema, Volume One: Theories, Practices, and Transcontinental Articulations, ed. Michael T. Martin, 33-59. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009.