Monday, April 18, 2005

The other 11 September...

Saw Machuca yesterday afternoon in Chelsea. I think it’s a first for me, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Chilean feature film before. We were in two minds whether to go, especially because the day was warm and sunny – not something you can guarantee in London in April.

However, we decided to give it a go, especially since it was a preview and the director, Andres Wood, would be there to answer questions afterwards. And I’m glad we did. Well worth seeing, although I don’t think it will get quite the attention it deserves, not least because I can’t see it as a commercial draw in quite the same way as other Latin American films have been, most notably City of God and The Motorcycle Diaries.

Machuca is a drama about the friendship which begins between two 11-year old boys in Santiago on the eve of the military coup in 1973. The two boys come from opposite social spheres: Gonzalo is a child of the middle class while Pedro comes from the nearby shantytown. They first meet – and have to overcome their prejudices of the other – when the priest and principal at Gonzalo’s private school brings in some of the poorer to participate in classes. The film was apparently inspired by Wood’s own school-time experience when the priests at his school brought in around 40 shanty dwellers. He acknowledges this fact by a dedication in the credits.

I don’t think you can pigeonhole Machuca as a coming-of-age film in the conventional Stand By Me mould. While there is some hope offered by the two boys’ friendship, that sentiment is tempered on two fronts: the of the impending military coup; the knowledge that the coup will advantage the upper and middle classes; and the bleak future faced by the poor and marginalised – and which continues until today. Indeed, it is left to one peripheral character, a drunk and absent father, to state that fact: ‘In fifteen years your friend here will be running his father’s company, while you will be cleaning the toilets.’

In the discussion afterwards, Wood said he wanted to make a film which went beyond the politics of the period. This was especially so since he wasn’t sure that a film about Chile in 1973 would be popularly received. As I am regularly informed by those in the know, Chilean society remains divided in the older generation while the young either have little knowledge of the events which occurred or remain apathetic. Consequently he was keen to focus on the story and keep the politics peripheral to any discussion while working with the child actors. One audience member found this contradictory: how could he make a film which was so obviously political and not find himself talking to the children about the period?

But you can see why Wood was so keen to strike a balance, especially while a substantial section of Chilean society continues to believe the coup was a good thing: an overtly pro-Allende film would have discouraged many cinema-goers from attending and reduced its commercial appeal. Also, it may well have switched off many viewers.

When asked who he drew his inspiration from in cinematographic terms, Wood highlighted Patricio Guzman’s La Batalla de Chile, the epic three-part documentary on the last year and a half of the Allende government and the coup. Watching Machuca those influences are very clear: from the street protests and demonstrations by both left and right (including everyone jumping against the middle class ‘mummies’, rich women banging their saucepans in protest and the menacing faces and helmets of the fascist-inspired Patria y Libertad youth marches) and the tangible feel of civil war lingering in the air to the public discussions over the rights and wrongs of the priests’ actions in the school and to the dark and gloomy room in which the family sits, watching the graining footage of the junta – including Pinochet – informing the population that Allende was dead and martial law imposed.

But for me, perhaps the most vivid image is of Gonzalo’s and Pedro’s classroom after the military has taken it over: the walls stripped bare, save for a picture of the junta, and empty desks as one boy after another disappears – a reminder of the disappeared which persisted throughout the military period and over which many families have still not received justice.

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