They may cut the flowers, but they won't hold back the spring.

--Quote by the late Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, seen everywhere in Chile.

"It wasn't the most courageous act of my life, but the most noble," is the way Chilean film maker-in-exile Miguel Littin described his clandestine return to Chile in 1985. Accompanied by three European film crews and later several makeshift Chilean ones, Littin filmed a searing documentary of life in Chile under the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's repressive government.

Permanently exiled since the fall of the leftist Allende government in 1973, Littin (whose "Actas de Marusia" and "Alsino and the Condor" were nominated for foreign-language-film Oscars) slipped back into his native country disguised as a businessman using a false passport. The film crews were dispatched with bogus (but government-approved) assignments to supposedly film banal but safe subjects in Chile. Despite a few close calls, everything went like clockwork.

After two months of filming--from Santiago and the National Palace to Neruda's home, Isla Negra, to the foot of the Andes, Littin returned to Europe, where 25 hours of footage shot by the various crews were waiting for him. The resulting four-hour opus, "Acta General de Chile" ("Chile: A General Record"), was shown with much success on Spanish-language television throughout the world early in 1986. Later, it went on to receive additional accolades at the Venice, Toronto, and Havana film festivals.

Littin has just edited a 102-minute theatrical version entitled "Actas de Chile" with English subtitles. It is scheduled for U.S. release in late summer after the film's American distributors (Joseph Papp, head of the New York Shakespeare Festival, and producer Edward Pressman) premiere it during New York's annual Festival Latino in August.

Littin's journey is also the subject of a new book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez to be published this month by Henry Holt Co. (more on the book later).

To understand the entire impact of Littin's journey home, one has to go back before the fall of Salvador Allende's Popular Unity government in 1973. Littin was then head of that government's Chile Films. His unique documentary style of film making was already evident in his early 1969 feature "The Jackal of Nahualtoro," a stinging indictment on capital punishment based on a true story of a mass murderer who is rehabilitated and then executed.

Since Pinochet's rise to power, Littin has lived in exile in Mexico and, more recently, Spain. In 1983, "Alsino and the Condor," his feature about the birth of the Nicaraguan Sandinista struggle against the Somoza government, was not only nominated for an Oscar but was also selected as the most popular film at the Los Angeles Film Exposition (Filmex) that year.

Despite his success, Littin spent the next two years in Spain struggling to get his next film made, but failed to secure financing. During that creative lull, Littin toyed with the idea of filming in Chile. The fact that he is one of 5,000 Chileans forbidden to re-enter the country, and the knowledge of what the Pinochet government might do if he was caught, didn't deter Littin from returning.

"While I was underground in Chile, I adopted two or three different personalities. I felt like the Invisible Man. I'd see old friends of mine on the streets but they didn't recognize me," Littin recalled recently after a standing-room-only screening of his documentary at UC Santa Barbara. "My film is an eyewitness account. I used film like a notebook--a dictation of notes. That's why I called it actas " (which translates as letters or records of proceedings ).

"This film was a personal experience for me, a very intimate thing. I needed to go back to my country, even though the dictatorship wouldn't permit me to do so or to even have contact with my people. This film seemed the best way for me to do it. Being an exile is like blank pages in a book. Those pages somehow have to be filled. Now, I feel less like an exile."

Littin's odyssey into his native country struck Nobel-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez ("One Hundred Years of Solitude") as even more interesting. Both men, good friends, have collaborated in the past (Garcia Marquez wrote the screenplay for Littin's film "Montiel's Widow"). Upon his return from Chile, Littin was interviewed by Garcia Marquez for 18 hours. The result: "La Aventura de Miguel Littin Clandestino en Chile" ("Clandestine in Chile: The Adventure of Miguel Littin"), a 150-page book in which Littin, in first-person narrative, details his transformation from a bearded, scraggly-looking bohemian cineaste into a clean-shaven, bourgeois "mummy" armed with a falsified passport, a surrogate wife and over 20,000 feet of film.

Garcia Marquez's 150-page book became an instant best-seller in Latin America and Spain last year. (In Chile, however, 14,846 copies of the book were burned last November in the port city of Valparaiso by military authorities.)

It's the perfect armchair guide for Littin's film, since many questions about it concern the logistics of how Littin got to Chile and then back out. What the book doesn't prepare one for is the final part of "Actas de Chile," with its passionate re-creation of the last hours of Salvador Allende--from his final communiques before he was killed in the National Palace to his burial (almost in anonymity) at a simple grave site recounted by his widow Hortensia Bussi de Allende in the film. (Littin was recently reunited with Allende's widow at a Spanish film festival, where her introduction of the film deeply moved him.)

The film's final sequence borrows from a cinematic technique utilized by the Maysles brothers in "Gimme Shelter." In this instance, Littin utilizes an editing room setting to create the sound and imagery of Allende's downfall in an excruciating stations-of-the-cross fashion. And while Littin doesn't try to hide his subjectivity, some viewers might find its repeated sequences beyond endurance.

Several days later, watching "Actas de Chile" at another packed screening--this time at UCLA--one was struck by the appearance of a clean-shaven Littin on screen dressed in a three-piece suit, his head almost bald, strolling in front of soldiers in Santiago. His disguise was so effective that it even fooled his mother.

In one emotion-filled incident recounted by Garcia Marquez in the book (not in the film), Littin visits the village where his mother lives. It isn't until he embraces her that she recognizes him. "It was one of the most singular and intense experiences in my life," Littin related afterward.

And just to whom is this clandestine letter addressed? "First and foremost, to all those Chileans who have been out of the country and haven't seen it for years. And secondly, to those people who feel a democratic tie to Chile and its people. It's a letter to everyone filled with feelings of love and tenderness, but also filled with indignation at the things that are happening there, too. It's a testament to all that."

Littin also feels that American public opinion has shifted toward the side of the democratic struggle in Chile and away from Pinochet. "The murder of young Rodrigo Rojas by the military has moved a lot of people to see what is actually going on there. And now the new facts in the Letelier assassination have confirmed the worst. Most Americans want Chile's democracy restored, to have free elections. If only the Reagan Administration would stop its support of Pinochet, one would see how quickly democracy could be restored."

Reached at his home in Madrid after the Pope's visit to Chile last month, Littin pointed out that "the Chilean people at every one of the popular demonstrations where the Pope was, voiced through letters and messages their denunciation of the situation they're forced to live under and their desire that the dictatorship leave the country."

Although Littin would like to update his film with these new developments, he admits what he would really like most is to film the fall of Pinochet and the recuperation of Chile.

Near the end of his trip home, he gave an interview to an international news magazine distributed in Chile, which carried a cover photo of him without his disguise above a headline that: "Littin Came, Filmed and Left." It had been just as important for Littin to let the Pinochet government know that he had been on native soil.

"When I took the plane out of Chile, I wanted to turn back and shout, 'I am Miguel Littin! I want to live in my country!,' but I held back. It was one of the hardest things I had to do."

Littin will begin work soon on two film biographies: one about the meeting of Cortez and Montezuma, and a projected four-hour film on the life of Augusto Sandino for the Nicaraguan film industry. Meanwhile, he recently joined his new collaborator Garcia Marquez in Havana, where the novelist heads the New Latin American Cinema Foundation. It is part of a new International Film and TV school there that will prepare aspiring Third World (and U.S. Latino) students to receive professional training as film makers.

Littin also plans to teach film courses, which are part of the three-year matriculation there. Both men have likewise earmarked all profits from "Clandestine in Chile" for the new school, which has been approved by Fidel Castro but is nevertheless run independently of the Cuban government, according to Littin.

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