Chile Documentaries Are a Grand Tradition

Anna Marie de la Fuente

Chile’s storied tradition in documentary filmmaking dates as far back as 1900 when its first recorded documentary short “Las Carreras del Viña del Mar” tracked its annual horse race derby in the coastal town of Viña del Mar. Its director remains anonymous as were those of many docs in the early part of the century.

It is perhaps Chile’s most prominent documentary filmmaker, Patricio Guzman, who, in his bid to sustain the memory of Chile’s dark history with such compelling gems as three-part “The Battle of Chile,” has helped keep the country’s documentary tradition as vibrant and renowned as it is now.

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“A country without documentaries is like a family without photo albums,” he has said.

Now 77, Guzman has a new doc, “The Cordillera of Dreams,” playing at the Special Screening at Cannes.

A plethora of non-fiction films about Chile’s political history continue to be made, but in recent years, a new generation has been exploring a rich diversity of themes. Among them is Maite Alberdi, whose touching portraits of sidelined communities such as in “The Grown-ups,” about a group of adult friends with Down syndrome who live productive independent lives, or “La Once” (Tea Time), which turns on a circle of elderly women friends who have met for tea once a month for 60 years.

Her fourth and latest doc, “The Mole Agent,” a Docs in Progress participant in Cannes’ Doc Corner, combines fictional elements of film noir and thrillers, Alberdi says.
“There’s a lot of comedy in life so my documentaries always have touches of humor,” she adds.

In the darkly comic “The Mole Agent,” a detective sends an 83-year-old man to infiltrate a retirement home that is suspected of abusing its residents.

“There are a host of new voices in documentaries,” says Gabriela Sandoval of Storyboard Media, who is bringing two unscripted features to Docs in Progress: experimental shorts filmmaker Francina Carbonell’s feature debut “The Sky Is Red,” an investigative piece on the 2010 fire at Chile’s San Miguel Prison in which 81 prisoners perished, and Sergio Castro’s “El Negro,” about the prison escape and unexpected capture in Paris of Chile’s most wanted fugitive, Palma, sentenced to life for killing a former police officer and a senator.

Paola Castillo, head of the Chilean Documentary Corp. (CCDoc), concurs.

“While some filmmakers make documentaries as a step to directing fiction, some have opted to focus only on this genre,” says Castillo. She notes that in recent years, an average of one to two documentaries bow every month in Chile’s growing arthouse circuit. Television remains elusive, airing mostly local animation and such high-profile films as the foreign-language Oscar-winning “A Fantastic Woman.”

CCDoc’s promotion and distribution org, ChileDoc, launched in October, has already released eight docs this year, says its director Diego Pino. The country has been producing an average of 30 to 40 documentaries a year in the past five years, he says.

While they tend to score average admissions of 2,000 to 3,000, some have lured as many as 20,000, as in the case of Alberdi’s “La Once,” followed by “Chicago Boys,” the 2015 account of a group of Milton Friedman-trained economists who turned Chile into the first most radical neoliberal country in the world, with 19,000 admissions. Chile’s third all-time documentary hit is Cannes winner “Allende, mi Abuelo Allende” (Beyond My Grandfather Allende) by the late president Salvador Allende’s granddaughter, Marcia Tambutti Allende, which brought in some 15,000 admissions.

“It’s indeed a great moment in time for Chile where more imaginative, artistic and visually compelling documentaries — ranging from experimental to traditional forms — are emerging,” says Castillo.

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