When left-wing coalition leader Gabriel Boric was elected to the Chilean premiership in 2021, he was 35 years old. When, a few months later, he was sworn in as the nation’s youngest-ever president — also the youngest state leader in the world — revered Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán was 80. “My Imaginary Country” is Guzmán’s examination of the 2019-2021 social protest movements that contributed to Boric’s rise. And while in formal terms it’s more of a standard, reportage-based doc than any of his recent essays, it is also the rarest of projects: one in which a venerated member of an older generation of political activists communicates a fervent admiration for his younger counterparts and a deep, grateful optimism for the future they are building.
It starts — in the more personal register to which fans of the latter-day Guzmán filmography are accustomed — with a brick. The filmmaker narrates in his warmly melodic, ASMR-provoking Spanish how such bricks and stones were pulled up from the pavements of Santiago (much like they had been in France during the May ’68 unrest) for use by civilian protesters as defensive weapons against the tear gas and rubber bullets of the police. It also reminds him of the swiftly and brutally repressed unrest that followed Pinochet’s 1973 seizure of power. The ascendancy of that military junta forced Guzmán into an exile from which he has never fully returned, preferring instead to visit and revisit the subject of his country’s history from the perspective of the heartbroken, eternally homesick expatriate.
But this also meant that Guzmán did not bear first-person witness to the massive, impromptu civic mobilization that occurred in 2019 as a reaction against the increasing inequality, skyrocketing cost of living and political corruption and cronyism of contemporary Chilean society. Chris Marker, an early champion of Guzmán’s work, once told him, “When you want to film a fire, you must be at the place where the first flame will appear.” When Guzmán apologetically admits that this time, he was not there for the tinderbox moment, it’s almost like he’s confessing to a dereliction of duty.
Perhaps that’s the reason the filmmaker then largely removes himself from the narrative, instead using contemporary reports, including some astonishing floating drone imagery of snaking columns of up to 1.2 million attendees, and his interviews with key witnesses, to tell the story. His previous films shone the light of philosophical inquiry onto his own relationship with his country — not just Chile’s politics but her skies and deserts (“Nostalgia for the Light”), her coastline and waters (“The Pearl Button”) and her long Andean spinal column (“The Cordillera of Dreams”). Here, his focus turns to the leaders of this new revolution. Which is easier said than done, given that one of the things setting the so-called “social outburst” apart from other civil protest movements is that, as Guzmán notes with undisguised wonder, it was a movement “without leaders.”
Perhaps it’s more correct to say that the journalists, writers, civilian medics, photographers, scholars and students whom Guzmán interviews are representatives of the thronging citizenry rather than its principals. In any case, they are an inspirational selection: Not coincidentally, all of them are women. There’s a student who was one of the group of schoolchildren whose spontaneous, clattering refusal to pay the newly hiked subway fare in 2019 sparked off the nationwide protests. There’s a photographer who was partially blinded in clashes with the police — one of the hundreds whose severe eye trauma as a result of wildly overzealous crowd-dispersion tactics made the covering of one eye into the movement’s most eloquently symbolic gesture.
One commentator speaks of leaving her daughter each morning, in the full knowledge she was risking leaving her motherless by evening; another muses eloquently on a strange sudden flash of empathy for one of the riot-geared female police officers on the other side of the barricades. In all cases, the choice of spokeswomen undemonstratively makes the point that, as much as the unrest sprang from economic frustrations, those frustrations were indivisible from a patriarchal status quo whose most committed opposition came from women of all social and ethnic backgrounds.
Guzmán is not so naive as to suggest it was all cheerful pot-banging and solidarity songs. There were instances of looting and scuffles and, perhaps inevitably for such a drawn-out campaign, lull periods too. But with Boric’s election, he has the opportunity to round out his film on a positive note and he takes it. Aside from everything else, “My Imaginary Country” is valuable for even daring to suggest that a win for progressive, truly democratic values is still possible when recent developments in other parts of the world might have made that seem farfetched.
The film does not achieve the heights of poetic profundity that Guzmán’s aforementioned “Chile Trilogy” does, nor is it as urgent and vital a work of historiography as his 1975 classic “The Battle of Chile.” Yet as he reflects on seeing military vehicles trundling down the avenues and plazas of Santiago for the second time in his life — this time toward a very different outcome — there is satisfaction in the suggestion that, however temporarily, the country of Guzmán’s imagination has become somewhat real. It’s a vindication, not just for the nation, but for its most clear-eyed, full-hearted chronicler. Would that all countries were so lucky as to have a Patricio Guzmán, to help with the painful process of recovering what has been lost and, as with “My Imaginary Country,” occasionally to celebrate what has been gained.