An evocative account of the heady, risky and crucial role played by photographers in the overthrow of Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship, “City of Photographers” evokes a tumultuous era with graphic immediacy, thanks to the tremendous iconic resonance of the stark black-and-white compositions on display. Simultaneously, docu contrasts the adrenaline-spiked intensity and close-knit solidarity of the turbulent past with the more staid conformity of the peaceful present. Fascinating pic offers a vividly peopled history lesson about the power of the image.
After a slow, somewhat hokey prelude featuring helmer Sebastian Moreno personally reminiscing in voiceover about his childhood as the son of an activist photographer, pic quickly finds its true voice. Although interviewed separately, the men and women who took to the streets, cameras in hand, attest with every word to a shared experience and a shared purpose.
Forming their own association, the AFI, to provide accreditation, support and a secure meeting place, the shutterbugs were generally in the thick of any confrontation between protestors and police, finding relative safety in numbers and collectively bearing witness to the violence of the regime. They even had their own martyr, a 20-year-old fledgling photog set on fire by police; an oft-repeated still image of him, camera at the ready, haunts the film.
Moreno juxtaposes color newsreel footage of civilian-militia clashes with far more expressive black-and-white photos of the same events, the latter more compellingly transfixing moments in time. Even the most stiffly posed snapshots — when pinned to the chests of wives and mothers, themselves photographed protesting the murders of their loved ones — had the power to make the “disappeared” visible again.
When the government tried to ban photographs, magazines appeared with blank boxes where illustrations would have been, with the word “censored” emblazoned across them. Photogs then lined the boulevards with the censored pictures, blown up and strapped to their bodies.
The interviewees, their faces often as expressive as their photos, speak of the incredible addictive rush of danger, particularly toward the end, when it became clear that Pinochet’s reign of terror was virtually over. As they set out again in the present day, wearing photos around their necks to show a new generation of everyday people transformed in the crucible of liberation, one senses that everything since has been mere anticlimax.
Tech credits are fine, though repetitive guitar-and-vocal score scarcely does the imagery justice.