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TIFF 2022: My Imaginary Country offers hope in chaos

My Imaginary Country

Patricio Guzman directs the rare political documentary that leaves viewers with a bit of optimism.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival)

From his landmark three-part work The Battle of Chile to the recent The Cordillera of Dreams, documentarian Patricio Guzman has made the subject of political unrest in South America, primarily regarding the 1973 coup d’etat in his home country of Chile, the central focus of his work. His latest film, My Imaginary Country, is yet another project along those lines, but viewers expecting more of the same may be as surprised as Guzman clearly was to discover that while the images of chaos captured here may appear to be more of the same, there is something different in the air that suggests something new and hopeful is unfolding as well.

An October, 2019 increase in public transportation fares led thousands to take to the streets of Santiago in protest. This on its own may sound like a fairly puny reason for a potential revolution but, in fact, it was merely the final straw after a long litany of complaints that the people had against President Sebastian Pinera and his government, whose policies continued in the capitalistic traditions of Pinochet, resulting in poor housing, a failed health care system and a precarious financial system that left most with nothing but broken promises and busted pensions.

[W]hile the images of chaos captured here may appear to be more of the same, there is something different in the air that suggests something new and hopeful is unfolding.

Guzman has been living in France for decades and wasn’t present for the initial flashpoint. When he did arrive with his cameras almost a year later, he presumed that he was going to be witnessing more of the same but as he takes to the streets to see things first-hand, he slowly begins to realize that something new is occurring. The people protesting for change may have similar concerns to those who fought a half-century earlier, but he finds that they have little interest in the ideologies of the Cold War-era mindset. These protestors are demanding social change, but also have lucid, straightforward and long-reaching ways of achieving these goals, primarily through the demand for a new constitution. Another big difference is the determination to bring an end to the national acceptance towards gender disparity and sexual violence at long last.

Guzman captures any number of electrifying images in My Imaginary Country, including crowds breaking up paving stones in order to hurl them at police who are struggling to put an end to the protests, and a group of women in the streets performing the protest song Un Violador en Tu Camino, which concludes with the succinct declaration “The rapist is you!” More importantly, he captures the revolutionary spirit of the people as they strive for a better existence for themselves, and for future generations, without falling into the usual traps, dead ends and unrealistic goals that have thwarted such change in the past.

Guzman is too smart of an observer of his country’s traumatic political history to simply accept that everything is going to simply work out in the end. However, through his striking images and his interviews with the participants in this new chapter of the struggle, he is able to at least embrace the possibility that big changes may at last be in store for Chile. In the end, My Imaginary Country ends on a note of genuine hopefulness about what the future may bring. When was the last time you could say that about a political documentary?

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Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.

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