Patricio Guzmán’s multifaceted documentary about the 2019 mass protests in Chile makes for fascinatingly open-ended viewing
There is a fatal flaw at the centre of My Imaginary Country, the latest film by veteran Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzmán, and yet it’s the kind of flaw that deepens and complicates the film. It’s a flaw that brings in questions of how far documentary can go, particularly when capturing the present, contemporaneous moment.
Here, Guzmán shows the mass protests that took over Chile in 2019, sparked by a rise in subway fares in the capital, but quickly spreading to encompass a mass of wider social demands regarding inequality and injustice. Interviewing exclusively women, Guzmán traces how the demands of those protests led their way up the political chain, leading to the election of socialist Gabriel Boric in 2022 and a referendum on whether to adopt a new constitution for the country which won by almost 80% (at the time, Chile was still using the same constitution as during Pinochet’s era, which provides minimal protection for a number of essential human rights).
The film continues with the drafting of the new constitution by a constitutive assembly, which includes figures and representatives from a cross-section of Chilean society, including its indigenous groups. The new constitution is to be put to the people in another referendum before it’s accepted (imagine if the UK had the same level of basic political imagination?). The film stops at some point in the lead up to the new referendum, the interviewees speaking of a sense of optimism, hope and excitement for the future.
My Imaginary Country premiered at Cannes in May 2022; the new constitution was put to the people and lost quite comprehensively by 61% in September 2022. And therein lies the flaw, though not one that’s necessarily a fault of Guzmán’s: are we watching a process of failure, of hope dashed?
To an extent, it is, but that’s part of what makes this such an interesting, invigorating film. Guzmán was present when the socialist Allende was elected in 1970 and overthrown by Pinochet’s fascist coup in 1973, his footage turned into The Battle of Chile Trilogy (1977-1979). His acclaim on the festival/arthouse stage has been based on a trilogy of documentaries made in the last 15 years probing and reflecting on the dark legacy of Pinochet – 2010's Nostalgia for the Light, 2015's The Pearl Button, and 2019's The Cordillera of Dreams. My Imaginary Country represents a shift, returning to contemporaneous, reportage-style documentary.
It provides a fascinating in-the-moment account of how a social movement arises from root demands – often built around simple material demands – and grows into something that shifts the tectonic plates of a nation. It also shows how those social demands proliferate and are appropriated into the political machinery, until they become institutionalised by political platforms, referenda and legal processes. Does this betray their origin point? Does this count as a success by the terms of the original demands? Do demands for justice require the process of being subsumed into the machinery of a nation-state?
My Imaginary Country’s scope is too present-tense to focus on these big philosophical questions. But it is to Guzmán’s credit and skills that his films retain a certain questioning openness. Even if the film doesn’t state these questions directly, it does allow the space for the viewer to question and probe these ideas themselves. As a record of a country at a major crossroads, this is captivating stuff.
My Imaginary Country is released in UK cinemas on 9 June.Where to watch