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Patricio Guzman's films explore Chile, 'a country that rests upon a wound'

Patricio Guzmán, a matchless artist in the realm of nonfiction film, hasn't lived in his native Chile since 1973. And yet for more than 40 years his homeland has remained his dearest and most charged subject.

In his tireless stand on behalf of memory and against forgetting, Chile is the terrain he continually excavates and whose ghosts he exhumes, in films that range from the monumental three-part "Battle of Chile" through "The Pearl Button," an exploration of the nation's treatment of its indigenous people, which received the screenwriting prize at this year's Berlin film festival.

When Guzmán says, in a thoughtful new documentary about his work, that Chile is "a country that rests upon a wound," he's referring not just to the geologic plates that could someday tear it asunder, but also to the violent 1973 coup that ended what he calls the "radiant dream" of President Salvador Allende's leftist reforms and launched the murderous dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

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The documentary portrait of Guzmán, French director Boris Nicot's "Filming Obstinately," has never screened in the States but is included in a DVD box set from Icarus Films that will be released Tuesday. It collects a quintet of Guzmán's most influential and potent works, spanning the 35 years from the first installment of "Battle" through 2010's "Nostalgia for the Light," a film that's as piercingly political as any documentary that Guzmán has directed and at the same time possesses a rare level of lyricism.

"Five Films by Patricio Guzmán" will also be available on video-on-demand, with Icarus bringing "The Battle of Chile," in all its 16mm black-and-white kinetic power, online for the first time.

Guzmán, 74, completed that cinematic collection triptych in self-imposed exile and subtitled it "The Struggle of an Unarmed People." It covers the complex, ultimately devastating events of 1973. Each stand-alone section focuses on a different aspect of the turmoil. "Part One: Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie" tracks the mobilization against Allende by the country's right wing, bolstered significantly by the CIA. "The Coup d'État" captures the escalating polarization of the classes as the nation braces for the seemingly inevitable overthrow of the democratically elected government.

The final film, "The Power of the People," is especially poignant in the hopeful resilience it depicts. The filmmaker zeros in on the industrial networks organized by pro-Allende workers who were determined to counteract the destabilizing maneuvers of the professional classes and U.S. government. As Guzmán's 2004 "Salvador Allende" makes clear, U.S. leaders had been trying to discredit the Chilean politician well before his successful 1970 presidential bid.

The director and his intrepid cameraman, Jorge Müller Silva, filmed vigorously during what turned out to be the final year of Allende's presidency and his life. Guzmán had recently returned to Santiago from film school in Madrid when he found the country energized by revolutionary optimism and then convulsed by counterrevolution. "We filmed the class struggle as if it were a landscape," he tells Nicot, encapsulating if somewhat downplaying the sense of curiosity and awe that pulses through every close-up and every fluent move of the roving camera.

"The Battle of Chile" is dedicated to the memory of Müller Silva, who became one of Chile's countless "disappeared" citizens.

A second cameraman haunts "Battle": Leonardo Henrichsen, an Argentine working for Swedish television whose chilling footage of his own murder closes "Part One" and opens "Part Two." Covering a failed coup attempt six weeks before Allende's overthrow, the 33-year-old recorded an insurgent military regiment shooting their guns at him, over his protests that he was a journalist. An army officer proceeded to destroy the photographic evidence, not realizing that Henrichsen's camera contained a backup chamber.

Guzmán — who fled the country after two weeks of imprisonment in the first days of the coup and now lives in France — wasn't the first to make public those horrifying final images, but he used them to stirring effect.

Unflinching gaze

The refusal to be cowed or look away is a defining characteristic of his work, and the need to remember is the explicit subject of two films in the Icarus collection: "Nostalgia for the Light" and the hourlong 1997 documentary "Chile, Obstinate Memory." For the latter, a heart-rending exploration of the way history gets rewritten, the filmmaker returned to his home country, where "Battle of Chile" had never been theatrically screened. He planned to show the documentary to small groups, in particular students who weren't alive at the time of the coup and grew up knowing only the official version of events.

As Guzmán tells Nicot, more than 30 schools refused his request to screen "Battle," their administrators citing the need to focus on the positive. The past, in their view, is an obstacle to education.

For those who did get to see the film, "Obstinate Memory" captures a wide range of reactions, many of them deeply emotional. Most haunting are the responses of those who were in Chile on Sept. 11, 1973, the day the presidential palace was bombed by the Chilean air force. A young man weeps to recall that, as Allende was under siege and the junta was sweeping up its perceived enemies, he rejoiced to learn that school was canceled. An elderly woman doesn't recognize herself in footage from the film, as though the knowledge that her husband, son, brother, son-in-law and nephew were among the disappeared is all she can bear to recall.

And then there's Allende's widow, Hortensia Bussi, with her quiet indignation and her stinging observation that wanting to forget is a matter of "self-defense."

A few years later, in the 2001 feature "The Pinochet Case," a woman who lost her sons and her house during the coup tells Guzmán that her husband "died of sadness." Chronicling the international back-and-forth as Spanish lawyers attempted to bring Pinochet (who died in 2006) to justice, the film incorporates harrowing testimony from women who survived their imprisonment and torture. Their silences often speak as resoundingly as their words. "My revenge is just staying alive," one survivor says.

Guzmán is at the side of a forensic anthropologist as she examines charred bone fragments from mass graves in the desert of northern Chile, where Pinochet turned the abandoned mine Chacabuco into a concentration camp. No comment is necessary when he includes a clip of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher telling the dictator, "You brought democracy to Chile."

A decade after "The Pinochet Case," Guzmán returned to Chile's Atacama Desert for "Nostalgia for the Light," which took top honors at the International Documentary Assn.'s 2011 awards. A work of poetic potency, it unforgettably connects the heaven-gazing astronomers who flock to the region for the translucency of its sky, and the endlessly grieving women who are always looking downward, sifting through the sand for the remains of loved ones murdered by the Pinochet regime.

Both groups are looking for evidence of the past. Around them, not just a nation but a world is often eager to forget. Guzmán, who fervently believes in the "gravitational force" of memory, finds it in every direction. He builds constellations from it, uncovering the charred and brilliant pieces that tell us where we've been.

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