February 12, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Patricio Guzmán
Spanish with subtitles
Culture Representation: This documentary examines the past and present political culture of Chile, with the Andes mountain range as a backdrop.
Culture Clash: Survivors of Chile’s turbulent history tell their stories of what it was like to live during the political battles of democracy versus dictatorship from the 1970s to the present.
Culture Audience: “The Cordillera of Dreams” will appeal primarily to people who have an interest in South American history and nature.
“The Cordillera of Dreams” is part travel documentary, part Chilean history lesson and part autobiography. (The word “cordillera” means mountain range.) The movie, which is narrated in voiceover only by director Patricio Guzmán, takes viewers on a journey through Santiago and other parts of Chile, to get first-person accounts of the often painful experiences of living through turbulent times, The regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, is put under a particular spotlight in the film.
“The Cordillera of Dreams” is the third film in Guzmán’s trilogy of documentaries about how Chile’s natural land ties into Chile’s sociological history. The trilogy began with 2011’s “Nostalgia for the Light” and continued with 2015’s “The Pearl Button.” But before “The Cordillera of Dreams” gets to the history of Chilean politics during the Pinochet regime, the documentary begins by immersing viewers into the idea that while different types of government might come and go and Chile, the Andes Mountains have remained the one true constant for changing eras and social customs in Chile.
The cinematography (by Samuel Lahu) is absolutely stunning, especially when taking in the majestic views of the Andes Mountains. (The cinematography is probably one of the main reasons why “The Cordillera of Dreams” won the prize for Best Documentary at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.) The documentary interviews a few people who live in the Andes, including sculptor Francisco Gazitúa, who says: “When you live in the Andes for many years, it feels like you’re inside a large, rocky container … It’s a labyrinth.”
Another sculptor named Vicente Gajadro, who likes to extract rocks from the Andes to see what’s inside, had this to say about living in these natural surroundings: “The Cordillera is a great mystery. I believe it’s a cultural landmark.” He also says of the enormous mountains: “They protect me, but they also isolate me.”
Alvaro Amigo, a volcanologist, comments on the awe-inspiring landscape: “When I look at the Cordillera, I see millions of years of evolution exposed.” And writer Jorge Baradit says that the Cordillera is “like a sea that makes us an island.”
Guzmán says that crossing the Cordillera is like arriving in a place that’s in the faraway past. “Everything seems unreal. I feel somewhat like an alien.” He says his earliest childhood memory of the Cordillera was seeing it on matchboxes. The director then shows viewers the house he used to live in when he was young. In stark contrast to the natural and clean-looking beauty of the Andes, the abandoned house is now in an area that looks like a junkyard. Guzmán, who no longer lives in Chile, says that going to his childhood home is a sad reminder of a more peaceful time in Chile, before the political “earthquake” of September 11, 1973.
On that day, when Guzmán was 32 years old, his life and the lives of millions of other Chileans changed forever, as a military coup d’état overthrew Socialist President Salvador Allende and elevated to power Pinochet as a dictatorial and brutal leader who ordered the persecution of left-wing political activists and other left-leaning Allende supporters. Many innocent people were also caught up in the turmoil, as the police and other military raided cities. There were widespread kidnappings, tortures and murders of thousands of people.
It’s here, near the middle of the film, that the story shifts to the urban bustle of Santiago, Chile’s capital city. Guzmán revisits the Stadium in Santiago, where thousands of male civilians, ages 15 to 65, were taken from their homes by police, arrested, and then rounded up and held as prisoners at the stadium, where they often tortured. Guzmán was one of those prisoners, and he remembers how just a few years before the coup d’état, he had been a happy World Cup spectator at the stadium when Italy played against Chile.
Guzmán was a political prisoner for two weeks, and even though the military put him under duress to tell them where he had put his documentary film footage of the military committing crimes, he refused to tell them. The experience of being imprisoned was so traumatic for Guzmán that he left Chile and hasn’t lived there since. Meanwhile, sculptor Francisco Gazitúa said he was under house arrest for four years.
Another person who shares their memories of the beginning of the Pinochet regime is singer Javiera Parra, remembers as a child seeing the police raiding people’s homes and feeling fear and uncertainty as military tanks would pass by when she was in a schoolyard. The feelings and insecurity and devastation still remain with the survivors, and will probably stay with them for the rest of their lives when they think about this disturbing time in Chile’s history.”
Perhaps the most fascinating person in the documentary is photo/video journalist Pablo Salas, who has been documenting Santiago street life since the 1970s and has almost miraculously never been arrested, even though he’s been in the middle of countless protests and violence in the streets. The documentary includes some archival footage that Salas was generous enough to share, giving insight into how chaotic and brutal life was on the streets of Santiago during the Pinochet regime. (The documentary also shows Salas’ home office, which is stacked to the brim with tapes he’s saved over the years.)
The archival footage shows scenes of people literally being dragged away by police for no apparent reason, as family members and friends try in vain to stop this horror from happening. People are seen getting beaten or blasted with water by police. And then there are the full-on riots that are shown. Although life in Chile is not as violently out-of-control as it was back then, there is still a lot of political unrest.
Salas, who obviously has a passion for it job, keeps documenting it all. He says the biggest difference now, compared to when he first started, is that more citizens can videorecord what’s happening, thanks to smartphones. He says he finds this change refreshing but also sometimes annoying when he wants to get footage but other non-journalist people are in the way trying to get their best shots too.
The documentary takes a brief, somewhat distracting detour into examining the trains that carry copper, Chile’s biggest natural resource. Even more interesting is the haunting footage inside Pinochet’s former offices, which are now abandoned but symbolize a period of Chilean history that the people cannot and should forget.
Guzmán has an almost poetic way of demonstrating the rot and neglect among the beauty of the Andes, as the documentary shows a junkyard of abandoned cars. It’s an obvious metaphor for Chile’s abandoned dreams for having a completely peaceful democracy. But Guzmán and many others haven’t given up hope in Chile. Just like items in a junkyard, perhaps what was abandoned can be salvaged and restored.
Icarus Films released “The Cordillera of Dreams” in New York City February 12, 2020, and will release the film in Los Angeles on February 21, 2020, followed by released in several other cities in the U.S. and Canada in the subsequent weeks. The movie was originally released in Chile and other countries in 2019.