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the travel agency
A Voyage from Exile into Documentary Filmmaking
by Patricio Henriquez, translated by Timothy Barnard
"On the street corner, beside the newspaper kiosk, there will be a blond man, very tall, with a green pullover. If he has the pullover on, get out of there fast. If, on the other hand, he has the pullover slung over his left shoulder, enter the building behind him immediately - but calmly - and go up to the tenth floor. That's the Canadian Embassy."
Seated behind his dark wood desk, the old Catholic priest spoke without looking at me and without any emotion, as if he had already made the same recommendation several times in the course of the day. I remained standing while listening to him. There was no question of lingering in this office next to a church in a poor Santiago neighbourhood. The sun shining outdoors was unable to brighten the darkness of this sinister Chilean spring of 1973.
It was an ironic situation. There I was, a young Chilean television director and, above all, a young socialist (a Marxist socialist, like Salvador Allende - not like that caricature of a socialist Tony Blair. In Chile, a "tony" is a clown) and an anti-cleric, hoping that a Catholic priest would show me a way out so that I would not fall back into the dictatorship's prisons.
"Canada?" I didn't conceal my surprise. "You wouldn't have anything in Latin America? Venezuela? Or Cuba? Or France, as a last resort?"
For the first time, the priest raised his eyes to look at me through his glasses. In a tone halfway between compassion and reproach, he said, "You know, this isn't a travel agency".
A week later, I found myself near the newspaper kiosk. There was no trace of the very tall blond man, but this was not surprising: I was two hours early for our rendez-vous. I was conscious of my punctuality, but afraid: the priest who wasn't a travel agent had never discussed the possibility that the tall blond man would not keep the appointment. What was I supposed to do then?
Let it Be
The Beatles film Let it Be was showing in a basement cinema near the kiosk. I went in to watch it for the umpteenth time. But I didn't really see it. The images filed by before me, but I couldn't follow them. I was afraid that, of the six spectators in the hall, three were cops keeping an eye on the other half.
At a time when terror was raging in broad daylight - when there was rape, torture and assassinations - anyone who took refuge in the darkness of a cinema and pretended to watch a documentary film (on the Beatles, to boot) could only be suspect in the regime's glaucous eyes. This was when I began to understand that the notions of documentary and freedom were inseparable. It's astonishing, but - as with many other things - you don't completely understand the value of freedom until you lose it.
The green pullover appeared for its appointment at the newspaper kiosk, resting indifferently on the tall blond man's shoulder. Fifty-four other Chileans saw the same signal and made their entry into Canada by the same means: in the centre of downtown Santiago, by elevator.
One day during my stay in the embassy - which lasted a month - I realised that
Canada was the land of Marshall McLuhan, that great guru who fed our interminable
discussions as students at the University of Chile in Valparaíso. Canada was
also one of the principal centres of cinéma vérité. But beyond all that, Canada
was my last hope. I desired that it be a temporary and brief solution: the Chilean
dictatorship could only be fleeting. Brutal, but ephemeral. I didn't know at
the time that it was going to last seventeen years, and even a little longer.
I had never seen such a blue sky, or such a dazzling sun. But without any heat! That 12th of January in 1974 in Toronto was very cold - a cold that I was not familiar with.
A few days later, a federal immigration officer vaunted the merits of western Canada to us. In his view, we would regret not going there to settle. Nevertheless, a good number of people in our group had other ideas. We wanted to go to Quebec instead. We didn't know any more about French-speaking Canada than we did about the West, but a group of Québécois who had lived in Chile, including priests (again!), students, and union activists, had come to see us in Toronto. They had formed solidarity groups, and were ready to help support resistance in Chile. They were warm and full of solidarity, and they had convinced us.
The federal immigration official was not happy. He told us that the government's support was conditional on our settling in the West. If we wanted to settle in Quebec, it would be at our own expense. Most of us had left Chile without a dime. After keen discussions during which, as the group's spokesperson, I had threatened to tell the whole story to the press, we finally received train tickets for Montreal.
It was grey and snowy on January 18, 1974. And although I still haven't managed to like winter, I have never regretted choosing Quebec.
Like most exiled Chileans, I did not unpack my bags during these first years
in Montreal. We were convinced we would soon be returning home. At the time,
I was working as a sweeper in a locomotive plant in Montreal's east end. But
most of my time was spent organising solidarity activities for Chile, in opposition
to the Pinochet regime.
Towards 1977, I met Daniel Bertolino, an extraordinary filmmaker who had a small production company in Montreal: Via le Monde. Of French origin, he had started roaming the planet at an early age, a sixteen millimetre film camera in hand. At first he was motivated by an interest in anthropology, but he was quickly seduced by the revolutionary movements in Latin America in the 1960s. He was one of the first filmmakers to spend a long time in Cuba, and the documentaries he shot there were quite unique.
Daniel wanted to make a documentary on Chile as part of the Poste Frontière ("Border Post") series he produced at Radio-Québec. He assigned the research to me. It was thanks to him that I was able to re-establish contact with my profession.
Marked by the events in Chile, I tended to transpose all my political analysis onto my work. Daniel made me understand that a documentary is much more (or much less!) than taking a political stance. I had to approach my work like a work of art, and that was a full-time job. I could no longer be an exiled activist. I wanted to become a filmmaker - an exiled and politically committed filmmaker, no doubt, but above all a filmmaker.
This was when I discovered Bertolt Brecht's writings on art and politics. One passage in particular had great impact on me. Invited to speak to young communist painters in Germany in 1935, the playwright told them: "If they ask you if you are a communist, better to produce your paintings as evidence than your Party card."
It was in realizing all of this that I began to unpack my bags. Thanks in large
part to Daniel Bertolino, I began to integrate myself into my new society and
to leave my bubble of exile. Don't misunderstand me: I was proud of my origin,
which will follow me to the end of my days. But I had to start seeing beyond
the Chilean drama.
It was chance (again!) that gave me my first trip outside of Quebec as a documentary
filmmaker. In 1978, Daniel Bertolino was preparing a series on some Third World
leaders. He had received two favourable responses, from Muammar Khadafi and
Yasser Arafat, who agreed to participate in the documentaries. The only problem
was that they were both available at exactly the same time. Daniel, therefore,
could not direct both segments.
Daniel had initially been uncertain about entrusting me as the director for one of these missions. But I insisted. With the help of Christiane Galipeau, the project's researcher, we left for Lebanon (which was in the midst of a war at the time) to meet Arafat.
Once in Beirut, we made contact with the PLO. PLO officials assured us that Arafat would see us, but were not able to say when or where. While we were waiting, we were free to visit and shoot footage in the refugee camps in the south.
The Palestinians' organisation in these camps was fascinating - both from a political and a military point of view. Amazingly, they did not impose any restrictions on what we could shoot. We even filmed military camps where thirteen and fourteen year old children trained!
After two weeks, we still had no news from Arafat. In those days, we worked in sixteen millimetre film, and I realised that the pile of four hundred foot long reels of unused film stock (ten minutes each!) was growing dangerously smaller each day. It was a significant dilemma: if Arafat did not show, we would have to return to Montreal and make a documentary without the central character. But if we continued to film (the day-to-day possibilities for filming were extraordinary) and the Palestinian leader appeared at the last minute, then we ran the risk of not having any film - and certainly none could be found in Beirut. I could see my brief career terminating abruptly!
Four weeks into our stay, we were woken up in the middle of the night, guided
into cars, and blindfolded. Much later, when the blindfolds were taken off,
there was Arafat, smiling. We had five reels of film left, enough for the interview
and to follow him around all day the following day - to the dismay of his security
people, who had clearly warned us that no one filmed the leader as he moved
about. But the leader had authorized us to be part of his caravan ...
In the 1980s, I had the privilege of being a member of the crew of Nord-Sud
("North-South"), an international affairs series for Radio-Québec. It was there
that I met Robert Cornellier and Raymonde Provencher, with whom I founded Macumba
International in 1995. The Nord-Sud programs, which were designed to
address development issues in the Third World, quickly left a "public affairs"
perspective behind and took up a documentary form that focussed on the human
potential in these countries. Given a choice between a Honduran peasant and
the Interior Minister (or even the President), we would choose to film the person
who worked the earth.
Like the rest of the Nord-Sud crew, I was heavily influenced by Tim Knight, a CBC trainer and resource person who taught us that television and documentaries are noble when they help far-away peoples (who may never physically meet) somehow come to know and understand one another.
In Quebec, I have the comfortable feeling of belonging to a community of politically engaged filmmakers. Some of them were born here and others, like me, come from far away. Some shoot here, and others shoot abroad. But whatever the terrain, they are all driven by a tenderness for the human race, and by a formidable critical vision. For me, they are all a constant source of learning and of renewed passion for my profession.
I admire the tenacity of Magnus Isacsson (Les enfants du choeur! ; 1999),
who invests years of his life in every film that he makes. Luc Côté (whose films
include Shakuntala Kazmi in India - part of the "Rainmakers" series;
1998) always astonishes me with the dramatic force of his visual narratives.
I am moved by the courage of Yvan Patry and Danièle Lacourse (Chronique d'un
génocide annoncé; 1996). I like the clear and honest language of Pierre
Falardeau (Le Temps des bouffons; 1993). I respect Mary Ellen Davis (The
Haunted Land; 2001) because she makes the films she wants to make, without
concessions. And I'm proud to share a place with, among other people, my Latin
American brothers Carlos Ferrand (Visionnaire ; 1999) and German Gutierrez
(Sociétés sous l'influence; 1997).
There are also the producers of documentary films - those people who not only put everything into place in order for a film to be made, but who also fiercely protect the space in which the filmmaker exercises his or her freedom. Marcel Simard, Paul Lapointe, Claude Cartier, Jean Lemire and Luc Vandal are exemplars in this respect.
And I'm delighted to note that, in Quebec, the documentary's continuity is
assured by a formidable new generation. The talent of Korbett Matthews (Devouring
Buddha; 2002), and his ability to reinvent images and sounds, is exceptional.
I must also salute the ceaseless and politically committed work of the group
Les Lucioles ("The Fireflies"). On average, its members are in their twenties:
These young people film almost every day of their lives, without waiting for
public funds. They record citizens' struggles wherever they take place. They
edit at the speed of lightning. And, every month, they organise screenings of
their work, creating a magical alternative network. With their thoughtful, conscienctious
approach to the documentary process, they are cementing a new social awareness.
Among the principal members of this group are Gabriel Anctil and Santiago Bertolino
(the son of Daniel), whose first name is the name of Chile's capital.
I have always had the impression of not being responsible for the most important decisions in my life. These were taken or determined by others. Or by circumstance. Or by a sort of strange force I don't dare try to define. To a large extent, all of this is responsible for me being where I am, and - to a degree - who I am.
The old priest was right: his office in Santiago was much more than a travel agency.
After making his first film, Yasser Arafat et les Palestiniens (1980),
Patricio Henriquez worked in television - particularly at Télé-Québec, where
he made documentary items for the Nord-Sud news program. Henriquez has
received numerous distinctions for his work, particularly for his film 11
septembre 1973, le dernier combat de Salvador Allende ("September 11th, 1973:
Salvador Allende's Last Battle", 1998) and Images d'une dictature ("Images
of a Dictatorship", 1999). With Raymonde Provencher and Robert Cornellier, he
founded the production company Macumba International, which produces the documentary
series eXtremis, on human rights violations and environmental issues. This project
has also given rise to a Web site (www.extremis.tv)
featuring documentary excerpts, curriculum resources for teachers, message
forums, breaking news, extensive backgrounders on human rights subjects, and
guidelines for getting involved. As the Macumba Web site explains: "The eXtremis.tv
Web site is much more than a simple extension of the documentary television series
it stems from. It aspires to become the ultimate meeting ground to gather information,
share thoughts, and learn about the human rights abuses affecting three-quarters
of the world's population."