Several high-profile American films, as well as a recently released Chilean drama about the regime of Augusto Pinochet, have been criticised for their inaccurate portrayal of the events that inspired them, writes Saul Austerlitz. The debate has led to a larger question – should filmmakers be faithful to the historical record?
Do filmmakers have a responsibility to be historically accurate?
The recently concluded Oscar season in the United States doubled as a referendum on the responsibility of filmmakers to be historically accurate. Best Picture winner Argo and fellow nominees Django Unchained, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty were each embroiled in controversy over their deviations from the historical record.
Were the American hostages who fled Iran after the 1979 revolution really chased by a fleet of jeeps as their plane took them to safety? Did the 1865 vote to pass the 13th Amendment unfold with such high drama? Did 19th-century slaves know how to wield weaponry with such aplomb? The specifics were all stand-ins for a broader question that still seems to unsettle viewers and cultural commentators alike: what debt do artists owe to history?
In the case of Zero Dark Thirty, much of the controversy stemmed from a confusion between depiction and prescription, between what we see on screen and what we understand the filmmakers to be approving. US senators and television pundits moonlighted as film critics (although in some cases it was fairly clear that they had not even seen Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-nominated film), incensed that a movie about the decade-long pursuit of Osama bin Laden might show CIA operatives torturing suspects. A more engaged viewer might have noted that the film's protagonist, Jessica Chastain's Maya, is admirable without being particularly likable, that the torture results in no usable information, and that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal's framing and construction of the torture scenes subtly align us with the victim, and not the torturers. No film about the hunt for bin Laden could have avoided depicting torture without being accused of fatal complicity in covering up one of the darker episodes in American history. But depiction is not prescription. Zero Dark Thirty no more endorses torture than Lincoln endorses slavery, or Life of Pi endorses tiger-on-human violence.
The torture debate, such as it is, is the United States' exposed nerve, and touching it releases a flood of pain that most Americans would simply prefer to forget. In Chile, the 17-year reign of General Augusto Pinochet occupies similar political and emotional space, a nightmare too painful to remember and too terrible to ignore. Pablo Larraín's No, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, tackles a relatively cheery topic from that dark time - the unexpectedly successful campaign to deny Pinochet a victory in a 1988 referendum intended to grant the unelected dictator a modicum of international respectability.
Campaign and film intertwine, the mood of the one inspiring the style of the other. The advertising wizard Rene Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), recently returned from exile in Mexico, is insistent that if the "No" campaigners genuinely want to win, they must jettison their shopworn grievances. Instead of litanies of the dead and imprisoned, and descriptions of Pinochet's crimes, the revolution would be marketed like a new cola. The nightly television campaign in favour of "No",with its recurrent motto, "Chile, happiness is coming", would be loose, comic and inclusive. It would be scrupulously unpolitical in the traditional sense, preferring to paint Pinochet supporters as hopelessly stodgy and out of touch rather than malevolent. Incorporating mimes, dancers, musical numbers and comedy routines, "No" is a political campaign with the heart of a vaudeville troupe, and the film is a political thriller that often plays like a comedy.
The jingles and visual puns, let alone the promise of undiluted happiness, would find little foothold in the world of Chile's other most prominent filmmaker, documentarian Patricio Guzmán. Guzmán, best known for the three-part The Battle of Chile, about the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende, the country's democratically elected president, in 1973, is the repository of Chile's memory, its chief mourner and lead prosecutor. Guzmán's most recent film, Nostalgia for the Light (2010), is the anti-No. Filmed in the vast, solitary Atacama Desert, Nostalgia follows two different groups of dedicated searchers: the astronomers searching the sky for traces of the distant past, and the elderly women scouring the desert for the remains of their children, kidnapped and murdered by the Pinochet regime.
Unfunded, unsupported, unnoticed, the women go on digging, insisting on remembering just as stubbornly as other Chileans insist on forgetting. As a historian observes in the film, Chileans know more about the events of the 19th century, or the movement of distant galaxies, than what took place in the Atacama in the 1970s. "I wish the telescopes didn't just look into the sky, but could see into the earth," says one of the mothers. No's Rene is consciously rejecting stories of the very sort told by Guzmán in his films, emblems of the sadsack opposition of the past. And yet depiction is not prescription. Much of No is structured as a rolling debate between Rene and his comrades on the ethics of the advertising campaign. Is it better to be right, or to win?
Rene is no more the film's hero than Maya is the hero of Zero Dark Thirty. Neither a saint nor a visionary, Rene is a gifted technician capable of reaching the ambivalent Chilean masses. He watches quietly as the bureaucrats of the "No" campaign roll out their familiar stories of outrage, and is entirely unmoved: "This doesn't sell," Rene says. Overthrowing a dictator is just like marketing any other new product, merely a question of moving the proper emotional levers to convince consumers to overcome their inherent inertia. But perhaps, Larraín is slyly suggesting, the "No" campaign, in its insistence on forgetfulness and distraction, bears more than a passing resemblance to the eternal "Yes" of Pinochet. Contrary to what the US Senate might believe, politically engaged films can subtly disagree with the perspective they appear to espouse.
Larraín's three films, each about the poisonous effects of the Pinochet era, are concerned with the silent Chilean majority, not the heroic fringe. Rene is closer kin to the Saturday Night Fever-worshipping actor of Tony Manero (2008) and the lovelorn pathologist's assistant of Post Mortem (2012) than the women of Nostalgia for the Light.
Post Mortem ends with a literal entombing, the messy loose ends of the past buried under an avalanche of old mattresses, chairs and dressers. No parts the curtains on Pinochet's reign without clearing away any of the detritus. Pinochet gives way to MTV, fuelled by a campaign that dismisses the dictator without coming to grips with any of his crimes.
Much of the commentary on No in the Chilean press has revolved around Larraín's family heritage. Both of his parents were prominent right-wing politicians and supporters of Pinochet, and suspicious leftists felt that Larraín was a rightist in leftist clothing, fatally undermining the heroic aura of the "No" campaign by transforming it into the triumph of the MTV-trained advertising wizards.
But the real division here is not between right and left, but between the generation that lived through Allende's overthrow, and those that came of age after Pinochet. Does cinematic style serve an underlying political message, or is style a political message in its own right? Guzman and Larraín disagree about the role of politics and history in their work, and yet Larraín, for all his supposed MTV excesses, is dramatising the very process of forgetfulness that Guzman has devoted his career to uncovering.
"I don't make these movies to change anything or to create a process," the 36-year-old Larraín told an interviewer in 2012. "The left-wing movies that were made in Latin America during the 70s expressed a certain ideology. They wanted to change things and create conscience. I'm not after any of that stuff; I'm not trying to create a pamphlet. I'm just trying to understand something and to show some things that did happen that I believe are very important for all of us." Larraín is not interested in the pamphleteering of the past, but in his own way, he is depicting the country's road not taken. Depiction is not prescription, and Larraín should not be confused with Rene any more than Bigelow should be taken for Maya. There is room in Chilean film for both Guzman and Larraín, just as American film can include the rigorous reportage of a Zero Dark Thirty and the delirious fantasy of a Django Unchained. There is also far more communion between these opposing poles than might be obvious at first, with Larraín's films betraying a sneaking sympathy for the kind of memorial projects embodied by the work of Guzmán. Rene wins, but his ambiguous response to the victory of his campaign betrays a sense that its forgetfulness comes at a steep price. "Memory has a gravitational force," Guzman tells us at the conclusion of Nostalgia for the Light, in words that could easily serve as the motto of "No". "It is constantly attracting us. Those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moment. Those who have none don't live anywhere."
Saul Austerlitz is the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy.