A Brief Chronicle of Chilean Cinema (English version)

Culture and Beyond

By Iván Pinto Veas

As I see it, the development of Chilean cinema during the last years followed two general paths.

  • The first line of development concerns the institutional framework. Cultural enterprises, especially film, have played a growing role in the democratization process.
  • The second concerns the aesthetic, narrative, and thematic processes which cinema has developed as a cultural-artistic phenomenon.

In merging the two we may find the social and cultural roles which cinema has played in renewing forms, approaches and questions within an ongoing historical process. From here we can ask another question that has been raised lately about the development of diffusion and reception of the cinema as cultural-social phenomenon.


During 2004 Congress promulgated a law of audiovisual finance long awaited by those who intend to build a cinema industry.

Films that made an impact during the first decade of democracy (1988-1998), had to confront a double challenge: to foster an interest in building a cinema industry, attract audiences to the theaters (thus strengthening the viability of cinema), and, at the same time, to get involved in social and political issues from the end of dictatorship and the “democratic turn.” The filmsImagen Latente (Perelmann, 1988) and Cien niños esperando un tren (a documentary by Ignacio Agüero, 1988), opened a new period as they were the first ones to approach dictatorship issues. Imagen Latente, a dark film, takes place during the dictatorship; it tells the story of a photographer who tries to find traces of her “missing” brother. The second film, a subtle documentary, shows the work carried out by a teacher (Alicia Vega, an important investigator of cinema in our country) with a group of children in a cinema workshop. Less direct, but more socially focused than Perelmann’s film, Agüero’s documentary shares with it an emphasis on the social importance of an artistic device. In Perelmann’s case, it is the use of the camera, which shifts from being a fashion and advertising device to recording the truth by capturing the torture places. In the Agüero documentary filmmaking takes a more playful turn, but it also transforms social reality: in the middle of dictatorship cinema becomes a tool for pedagogy, a way to connect children who have been separated by the economic system. During the next years cinema will deepen both themes: the recent memories of dictatorship and the marginalization and inequality which seem to have been its legacy.

Three remarkable works dealing with the first theme are: La Frontera (Ricardo Larraín, 1991), Amnesia (Gonzalo Justininao, 1994) and La memoria obstinada (Patricio Guzmán, 1996). The first one, a co-production of Chile and Spain, won awards abroad (Silver Bear in Berlin, best script award in Havana), and was very well received locally. The film takes place in a desolate landscape in southern Chile, and tells the story of Ramiro Orellana, an ex-militant whom the dictatorship government sent to work there. With a brilliant gallery of characters (a Spanish man who fought in the Civil War, a lonely woman, a diver), this film creates remarkably deep images which link the destructive power of the landscape with the social reality of the country. Larraín creates a robust and poetic film, aspects of which we might now call “magical realism.” Amnesia and La memoria obstinada project different moods. The first one is a dark drama which tells a story of revenge against a torturer (painted in broad strokes verging on the grotesque). The second is a documentary by one of the Chilean directors who had a brilliant career outside of Chile and became famous with La Batalla de Chile (1975-1979), a documentary about the rise and fall of Allende’s government. In La memoria obstinada, Guzmán uses oral testimony told by several voices (linked by history, exile, family ties), to show the break with past utopias and the frustrations they leave behind, as well as the deep injuries left by the political and military violence of the recent past of Chile. With this film, widely discussed in left-wing political and cultural debate, Guzmán started a line of investigation and raised the possibility of reconciliation [June, not sure about this] that came to characterize later documentaries, which made deep inquiries, within the framework of the democratic process, into the social construction of memories.

The second path followed by the first wave of Chilean cinema sought to show, comment on or denounce certain deep changes brought by the political transition and which produced a curious “Realism” that also appeared in the 90s elsewhere in Latin America (Gaviria in Colombia, and the first new Argentine cinema). This type of “Realism” is defined in opposition to trends of the 70s, as it flirted with some conventional genres (from black genres to dramatic and spicy comedy) and sometimes with the rawness and violence of the social situation. The first example was Caluga o Menta (Justiniano, 1990), a powerful if crude portrait of the disadvantaged who were brought down by the neo-liberal economics and politics of the dictatorship. The film also notes the emergence of television as social phenomenon. Both themes are even more focused in Johnny 100 pesos(Graef Marino, 1994), a thriller that features a marginal school boy, member of a gang that assaults a videoclub, an assault that becomes a media and television event. The film of Graef Marino is a rare case in Chile: his narrative works like a clock in support of his open desire to do commercial cinema that still focuses on the social changes and uncertainty of the early 90s. By the year 2000, this political emphasis (criticism of the media, and plots centered on marginal situations) had lost its force and film moved into popular comedy, which in its best moments (El chacotero sentimental, Galaz, 1999; Historias de Fútbol, Wood, 1997; y Sexo con Amor, Quercia, 2004), not only broke box-office records but also created, at the institutional level, the appropriate climate for the promulgation of the cinema law I mentioned earlier.


Aquí se construye (2000) by Ignacio Agüero and Machuca (2004) by Andrés Wood both started new movements in Chile’s cinema. The first film, a documentary (by the director of Cien niños esperando un tren), records the construction of new buildings – in bad taste-- in the residential neighborhoods of Santiago de Chile. With a subtle blend of existential and geographic features (the documentary follows a university teacher who is the observer), Agüero builds an archaeology of places and emotions about the city. In the process of reconstruction of neo-Santiago (work of economic neoliberalism), he finds ghostly ruins and fragments that still inhabit the city. Machuca is a fictional story of a child that takes place during the rise and fall of Allende’s government. Projecting a great sense of empathy with the audience, the film satisfied the public’s emotional and personal expectations by showing the social landscapes and the emotional breaks during the period 1970-1973. The film not only served as a bridge to establish an open social dialogue about the events, but also established a “canon” of how to represent 1973, a position which is balanced at a middle point between complete rejection of ideology and full transparency.

After 2004, year of the law of cinema, everything suddenly changes.

  • The Universidad de Valparaíso, Universidad de Chile and Universidad Católica offer careers in cinematography, which means the expansion and establishment of formal instruction in this field.
  • The number of releases had reached a peak in 2003 with nearly 30 new shows; since the 90s their numbers have doubled and tripled.
  • Work with digital cameras lowers the costs of production, which will lead to the production and even the screening of films in digital format.
  • The rise of dozens of new film festivals that require diversification stimulates the industry to grow in quality and specialization, from independent cinema to documentary, from underground films to old films.
  • The birth of a “cultural cinema field” brings out new web sites that specialize in film criticism (Fueradecampo.cl, Mabuse.cl, laFuga.cl) and the emergence of a publisher specializing in topics of cinema.
  • In the last few years there has been an obvious decrease in the number of spectators who go to cinema (a transnational phenomenon), a problem that has led filmmakers to question the sacred custom of release on the big screen. The year 2008 has been called the year of the “audiences’ crisis” for Chilean cinema.

These, among others, are the factors that have contributed to the diversification of the cinematic milieu in recent years. Today’s formats, forms and modalities of cinematographic representation are less clearly defined: some documentary films have begun to open to fragmentation and reflection on their language (Ningún lugar en ninguna parte, 2004; Arcana, 2006, Dear Nonna, 2004); some films blur the border between documentary and fiction (El Pejesapo, Obreras saliendo de la fábrica, Alicia en el país, El astuto Mono Pinochet y la moneda de los cerdos, 2004), some display the proliferation of an ever more intimate, literary and confessional “I” (La ciudad de los fotógrafos, 2006; Calle Santa Fe, 2006; Retrato de Kusak, 2004) and, during the last years, some produce a re-visitation (topographic, fragmented and discursive) of Santiago (Tony Manero, 2008; Mami te amo, 2008; Tiempos Malos, 2009). All of them confirm that even though it is not possible to establish a clear direction, some of the themes brought out at the beginning of democracy will continue to deepen (collective and social memories) and others will have to mutate or to adapt to new digital technology. What is clear is that whatever happens, the cinema –the one we are interested in-- will know how to adapt to its times, and it will be necessary then to reinforce the cultural fields of reception of these future films, which will tell us about ourselves in ways that we might not even be able to recognize.

Iván Pinto Veas is a professor and film critic, with studies in Film, Aesthetics and Communication and culture. He is presently working as developer, editor and critic of the film website www.lafuga.cl.

See also: Chile, Culture, Film