Calle Santa Fé: between Chile and freedom

Patrice de Beer
16 January 2008

In a cinema industry dominated by commercial, formulaic blockbusters, a different kind of movie sometimes establishes its place just by telling its own story and remaining true to its individual voice. Such a film is the Franco-Chilean documentary Calle Santa Fé, received with modest acclaim by critics at the Cannes film festival in May 2007 and now accessible to the wider public in France.

Also on Chilean politics and the Pinochet legacy in openDemocracy:

Roberto Espíndola, "Chile's new era" (16 January 2006)

Justin Vogler, "Michelle Bachelet's triumph" (16 January 2006)

Jorge Larraín, "Pinochet's death" (12 December 2006)

Justin Vogler, "Augusto Pinochet: chronicle of a death foretold" (9 December 2006)

Alan Angell, "The Pinochet regime: an accounting" (12 December 2006)

Carlos Huneeus, "Pinochet's regime: the verdict of history" (13 December 2006)

The film is in simple terms the autobiography of Carmen Castillo, whose young adulthood in Chile was spent as a leftist militant of the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (Movement of the Revolutionary Left / MIR), active both during the socialist presidency of Salvador Allende and - clandestinely - under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet's military junta which overthrew Allende on 11 September 1973. Castillo was by then married to the head of the MIR, Miguel Enriquez, and was beside him on 5 October 1974 when agents of the Dina (Chilean secret police) launched an assault; they shot and killed Enriquez, and wounded Castillo. She went on to survive arrest before being given the option of exile in France, where eventually she trained as a filmmaker. Thirty years on, in a Chile now under democratic government, she finally found the strength to come back to where her story began: No. 725 Calle Santa , in the middle-class San Miguel neighbourhood of Santiago.

A former life revisited can be a touching story, especially when the circumstances mix public commitment and private drama: Carmen Castillo lost the baby she was carrying at the time of her capture, but unlike many others under Pinochet's brutal regime her life and that of her two daughters were spared. This cycle of radicalism, death, prison, exile, family growth and return would be interesting in anyone's hands, but Calle Santa Fé goes much further than just recounting a story - either Castillo's own or that of the Miristas who endured seventeen years of repression, and lived through even more of party "errors", disillusionment and the ageing process. It seeks to explore the meaning of this experience, as seen by the main protagonist - including by raising questions too often evaded by political opportunism or political correctness by left and right alike.

The approach is clear when Castillo sees No 725 for the first time in three decades. In front of the house, she meets the old worker who saved her life by calling for an ambulance and other neighbours who remember her and "Miguel". At that moment, she throws away her blinkers and stops seeing all Chileans who didn't go into exile as in some way tainted by cowardice or treason. Her revelations continue when she visits the hospital where she was treated after the shooting and from where the news she was still alive filtered abroad, thus saving her life. When she realises that life (including political life) had been going on all the time she had been away, and that younger militants were still carrying the leftist flag in the poblaciones around Santiago, she understands that she does not want to end as a "hero's widow"; and that her plan to buy back the family's old house from an elderly partisan of the late dictator and transform it into a museum - thus mummifying "Miguel" - was now irrelevant.

The past in the present

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde

Among Patrice de Beer's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"A not so quiet American" (13 July 2007)

"Nicholas Sarkozy, rupture and ouverture" (31 July 2007)

"The French temptation" (31 August 2007)

"Nicolas Sarkozy's striking test" (29 November 2007)

All this raises a series of difficult questions. In retrospect, was the fight (in the MIR's case, an armed one) against a well-entrenched dictatorship worth it? Chile, after all, was eventually restored to democracy in a peaceful transition and now has another socialist president in La Moneda palace - Michelle Bachelet, who was herself tortured and exiled, and whose father was murdered by the junta. Moreover, was the MIR's exiled leadership right in the decisions it made during the Pinochet years: to send all militants back to Chile - and often to death - to relaunch guerrilla warfare in 1978, to disband the movement in 1989 (without an internal debate)? Many Miristas lost their lives, and their families were bereaved, thanks too to the folly of a Castroist (or Guevarist) leadership closer to "internationalist" ideological certitudes than to local realities. Was it worth it? Carmen Castillo - who had refused to return to Chile - discusses all this frankly and sincerely with her affluent bourgeois parents, old friends, survivors and the new generation. The debate unfolds in front of our eyes, making it ours.

This honest confrontation with a complex and often painful reality is miles away from some the idealised and Manichean world of some writers' or filmmakers' yesteryears. The approach of Calle Santa Fé is a refreshing contrast - in a way that 1968, the fortieth anniversary of the global évènements will doubtless sharpen - with the tendency of ancient revolutionaries to become Don Quixotes seeking to justify their revolutionary struggle and the sacrifices of their fallen comrades, rather than thinking through the distance between "then" and "now". The result too often is that discrimination and self-knowledge take second place to the fight against today's windmills, and proper understanding (for example, of the difference between "armed struggle" and "terrorism") is lost.

Carmen Castillo's own journey is very different from such exercises in nostalgia and closure. "My memory of what happened has gone from horror and evil to good", she says. "For a long time, I considered Chile to be full of nothing but fascists. Even though I knew that there was still humanity to be found among the prisoners in the torture chambers and in the camps, I maintained this perception of evil and fear. (...) When I returned to Calle Santa Fé, it was like coming back to a place where a life had been broken. But I finally understood this way of being, of fighting, of a people who'd never been considered, whose opinion regarding the dictatorship had always been ignored."

But the hardest thing for an old militant may be to explain to her children why she left them behind to pursue her revolutionary struggle. Carmen Castillo's daughters, when they accompany her back to No. 725 Calle Santa Fé, refuse to discuss all that in front of their mother's camera. Another Mirista's daughter, for her own part, says that it took her years to understand her parents' decisions, and probably some more time to forgive.

The world, in short, has moved on since Calle Santa Fé. But Carmen Castillo echoes the carved tribute to fallen Republicans in the Spanish civil war, believing that "as long as we are alive, our dead won't really be dead". Not to forget does not mean nostalgia or hatred. It can become a route to life.

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