Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Reality of Fiction in Post-Pinochet Chile: Los Archivos del Cardenal

I have been traveling to and from Chile for various reasons at various times since 2005, acquiring a deep appreciation for the country and its cultural subtleties and social mores—to say nothing of a Spanish accent steeped in Chilean slang.  But if I have learned anything since my initial days, it is that one must exercise sensitivity when approaching the dictatorial past.  On my most recent flight here, for example, I found myself especially mum when engaged by a well-dressed, middle-aged Chilean woman about my upcoming adventures.  Instead of revealing my true intentions—a year’s worth of historical research related to human rights and memory—I reverted to the tourist line: surfing, senderismo (trekking), and sun.  And we continued our conversation concerning Chile’s naturally beautiful landscape, not its unattractive past, maintaining the unspoken but readily recognizable veneer aimed at keeping the dictatorial past contained to the quiet corners of private, personal conversations rather than something to be discussed openly with strangers on airplanes, public transport, or other places where class and political lines may cross.  
That is why I was particularly pleased with the recent release of a new mini-series—Los Archivos del Cardenal—on Chile’s national broadcast channel, Televisión Nacional de Chile (TVN).  The series, consisting of 12 "chapters," takes cases collected by the Vicaría de la Solidaridad under Cardinal Raul Silva Henríquez during the dictatorship and reproduces them for public consumption.  For those not in the know, the Vicaría, an organization of religious and lay Catholics, as well as non-believers, was arguably Latin America’s most active, if not high-profile, human rights organization during the 1970s and 80s.  It worked to protect Chileans suffering from Augusto Pinochet’s persecution by offering legal, medical, moral, and financial help, as well as establishing numerous national and international networks of support.  It is no secret, then, that the Vicaría is intimately linked to human rights activism and, moreover, that it has created an archive that documents crimes against humanity. 

Neither is it a secret that Los Archivos is a fictitious account of the past, however based in and inspired by the actual Vicaría.  Nicolás Acuña, director of the show, has taken the sensitive subject of dictatorship and exposed it through the commonplace medium of public television—to the chagrin of some and championing of others.  In a conversation with Acuña, I learned that among those who supported the creation of the show—a group that includes former Vicaría social workers and Chile’s first transitional president, Patricio Aylwin (1990-1994)—are historians and other academics who helped with the series’ stories.  Acuña, born in Chile in 1972 and raised in exile in Sweden after the coup, wanted to create an “historical document that pays tribute to Vicaría workers,” something that he feels fell through the cracks during the center-left Concertación governments between 1990 and 2010.  

The careful avoidance of Chile's tumultuous past has made itself felt in both opposition to the show and the creators' caution in approaching stories of resistance.  Senator Carlos Larraín voiced the conservative response when he said, “The series takes events that occurred exactly 40 years ago, but with an obvious political connotation: the left as victim, and this is what gives fans the fire to act politically with a certain amount of superiority” (author's translation).  Moreover, Acuña told me that to attract more viewers (or put fewer off), the team “couldn’t play too much with the theme of human rights.”  This, then, is why the series is also laced with racy scenes of love and has, well, a fictitious feel of a “police-investigative series.”  
But in an interview on Chile’s popular 24hrs, Acuña and actor Francisco Melos also spoke of the responsibility to show, despite the hardships of dictatorship, that people still lived, loved, drank whiskey, and laughed.  Thus, the debate that is circulating in op-eds, public discourse, the political circus, and my circle of friends, revolves not only around the usefulness of fiction versus history, but the reality of present and past politics, to say nothing of the demands of TV as a dramatic form.  Meanwhile, for the first time on public television, open references that damn the dictator(ship) are flashing across millions of Chilean screens.  

However, even if the (political) line between the Vicaría’s history and the fiction of Los Archivos is unclear, what is clear are the paralyzing scenes of torture, daylight disappearances, and the discovery of human remains in hidden graves.  Too, the series is not short on uncovering moral motives and struggles.  In one particularly moving scene, Chileans are invited to muse on the moral compass of a torturer of the country’s infamous National Center of Intelligence (CNI) as he returns home from work to stroke the cheek of his sleeping son.  As a viewer, I find that these images send shivers down my spine, a response that combines the emotive, the moral and the political. Moreover, and especially important, I think, is that for the interested and/or skeptical, follow-ups and fact-checking of each “chapter” can be cross-referenced to the “real” or “archived” case vis-à-vis a project directed by the Universidad Diego Portales.  There is also the option of visiting the Vicaría’s successor organization, La Fundación de Documentación y Archivo de la Vicaría de la Solidaridad (pictured above), to continue the historical inquiry.  

Approaching the past in post-dictatorship Chile is no easy task. From fictional crash-course lessons on public television to more established forms of memory-making through museums and memorials, any entranceway into Chile’s painful past is significant—and controversial, given the national and international public attention and debate that Los Archivos has generated in interviews, articles, and reviews.  As historian Steve Stern recently suggested while speaking at the “Memories in Construction” seminar at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Los Archivos is another step in the "materialization of memory in the physical-cultural landscape of a new generation of Chileans too young to have a direct remembrance of the dictatorship."
Los Archivos, like other films and television based on history, raises the question: when (or) is it useful to fictionalize the past?  Or can fictionalized history serve a special purpose when approaching sensitive issues such as crimes against humanity?  Whatever your answer, in Chile, for better or worse, the “materialization of memory” of such crimes for today’s generation is taking root in the form of Acuña’s “historic document”—a collaborative but careful effort that is more loyal to the past than it is faithful.  Yet, despite this reality of fiction, I look forward to what I hope is a not-too-distant future when my airplane conversations can focus on Chile’s physical-cultural landscape, not just its natural beauty. 

~ Zachary McKiernan


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi Zach,
    I was wondering if you had any reactions or thoughts about the film Nostalgie de la Lumiere? Does it have any connection to the phenomena you talk about here?


  3. Hi Margo-

    I enjoyed Patricio Guzman’s film Nostalgia for the Light. And to say it doesn’t have any connections with Los Archivos might be short-sighted. But films and documentaries discussing the dictatorship are hardly new. Guzman’s more famous ones are The Battle of Chile, Chile, Obstinate Memory, and The Pinochet Case. Other important ones worthy of watching are Estadio Nacional (Carmen Luz Parrot), City of Photographers (Sebastian Moreno), and, a personal favorite and must see, Machuca (Andres Wood).

    For me, a major distinction dealing with the Los Archivos phenomenon and Guzman has to do with form: film vs. TV series—and thus audience reach and reception, to say nothing of production. Guzman, I believe, targets a more exclusive, esoteric, and even international audience. (I first saw Nostalgia for the Light at UCSB’s Human Rights Film Festival with English subtitles; you have here a French translation of the title). Los Archivos, on the other hand, is aimed at a more popular audience, specifically Chilean, and is/was easily accessible via TVN.

    Both are important pieces in and of a complex (hi)story. But my best guess is that the impact of Los Archivos has carried much more weight “on the ground” in Chile than Nostalgia for the Light—particularly because of its public prominence.

    Finally, content aside, I think the airing of Los Archivos on TV today gives us a much better indication of Chile’s transition to democracy and “memory question” than Guzman’s newest film. It reflects the maturation of post-Pinochet Chile, an openness to actually air this stuff on prime-time television. Where there was room for Guzman-like films and documentaries a decade and more ago, it is only now that space has become available for the likes of Los Archivos.