Patricio Guzman’s latest missive from his native Chile, My Imaginary Country, opens with a hit of nostalgia: black-and-white footage of sidewalks packed with cheering supporters of Salvador Allende circa his 1970 presidential election, laid over a spare, elegiac piano. It’s a feint, though, for throughout the film—which opens Friday, Oct. 29 at the Roxie, the perfect venue for it—the present proves far more compelling to the 81-year-old writer-director than the past.
Allende has been Guzman’s touchstone—personal and professional—since the Socialist politician took office promising a more equitable society. Guzman’s film debut, The First Year, chronicled Allende’s initial 12 months in office. The idealism that the president embodied remains the artist’s beacon, reminiscent of the way some Americans still revere the spirit of change that John and Robert Kennedy represented.
Allende died in the U.S.-backed military coup of 1973, which installed the venal Augusto Pinochet as the head of a ruthless, repressive regime. Guzman’s urgent and epic three-part mid-1970s history, The Battle of Chile, stands as a pinnacle of documentary filmmaking.
My Imaginary Country salutes the spontaneous grassroots protest movement that exploded in October 2019, and led to a vote one year later to rewrite the Chilean constitution. Guzman frames it as an overdue payoff for the smashed idealism and shattering betrayal of his youth: It was compensation, he repeatedly acknowledges in his sometimes mournful, sometimes laudatory narration, demanded by a new generation—both for the massive debt owed to their parents and grandparents by the Chilean government, and as a down payment on their own future.
Instead of a propulsive, blow-by-blow documentary constructed out of verité footage, Guzman opts for a more reflective style that still preserves the urgency of the moment and the cause. He interviews a range of women—and only women—including a photographer, volunteer medic, housing activist, poet, political scientist and chess master (which might seem familiar to those who’ve seen Guzman’s 2010 political/philosophical masterwork Nostalgia for the Light).