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Pablo Navarrete's new film 'Mother, Country' focuses on his family in a simple yet poignant story about Chile's traumatic past

The documentary takes an unflinching look at the country's brutal military dictatorship, and the bravery of those who have spent decades in resistance.

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Pablo Navarrete.

In the opening scene of the new documentary Mother, Country, which has its world premiere at The Showroom on Wednesday, the film’s director Pablo Navarrete and his parents walk up to an unassuming house in a leafy Santiago neighbourhood. His mother, Cristina, whose brave personal testimony will go on to provide the narrative for the film, tells us this was once a notorious torture centre, known as La Venda Sexy, and that she had been detained there after Chile’s 1973 military coup. Just then, the house’s residents drive up to the gate to find these unwanted visitors. Questions quickly turn into accusations, demands for acknowledgement met with denial, all caught on camera in a sequence that captures the essence of the film: a story of a return that weaves Chile’s dark past with the ongoing fight against political amnesia.

The story is also about an awakening: both Chile’s (albeit fleeting) 2019 mass social uprising, and the director’s own. The film begins in that Santiago of 2019, when, after years of simmering anger over growing social inequality, a simple hike in the cost of metro fares lights the fuse. Navarrete, camera in tow, heads to the country he confesses to have long kept at arm’s length, inspired by the millions of Chileans who took to the streets demanding an end to the free market system installed during the dictatorship that made commodities out of healthcare, education and pensions at their expense.

Another type of documentary might have focused on the granular detail of this political story, but while the film (edited and co-produced by Argentinian filmmaker Rodrigo Vazquez) does artfully weave archival footage of the dictatorial past to suggest cause and effect with a Chile seething with rage, it reserves the main arc and the centre of the frame for Navarrete’s mother. Cristina Godoy-Navarrete allows her son to film her as she shares harrowing accounts of unimaginable torture, but only if he also shows her refusal to be cowered, be it in footage of her relentless political activism over the years, or in a glitchy VHS video filmed in a London park after fleeing Chile as she embraces her husband Roberto: this is her body, and she will use it to love.

The film takes its place in a rich lineage of documentaries that have exposed how thousands of people were tortured or disappeared during the military regime, but it does so from the point of view of the diaspora. As the film itself recounts, hundreds of thousands of Chileans fled and made their lives elsewhere, but they never stopped remembering their homeland.

Their voices have a ghostly power in a country where public references to the past are kept to a minimum. Navarrete also locates the film in a rich history of political resistance by the exiled community in the UK: most notably, the central role played by UK Chileans in a 503 day campaign to bring General Pinochet to justice after his arrest in London in the late 1990s.

Last month, when the film was screened for the first time in London, one Chilean in the audience said the film illuminated a history that is never mentioned back home. Inversely, it is only recently that Chile has begun to recognise contributions made by these transnationalised generations as a meaningful part of the country’s own cultural and political history. This year for the first time ever, Valeria Montti Colque, an artist from the Chilean diaspora, was chosen to represent the country in the national pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Colque’s work Cosmonación reconstructs her parent’s country by ignoring the nation state altogether, invoking instead indigenous epistemologies that Chile has long sought to silence. It would be heart-warming to know that films like Navarrete’s might be acknowledged by Chile as diasporic contributions that represent a citizenry beyond its borders.

Back in Santiago, Navarrete may have opened the film in a well-to-do neighbourhood, but he soon wants to take us elsewhere – to La Victoria, a low-income area on the outskirts of the city. It’s no accident that this sequence makes it into the film: the neighbourhood was the first mass organised land occupation in Latin America and the site of fearless political resistance during the dictatorship. The symbolism sharpens when the family tours around a community TV station Señal 3: a makeshift alternative media outlet that positions itself in opposition to the right-wing corporate media that dominates Chile media landscape.

Outside the TV station we see a shot of a mural. It reads: “Comunicación al servicio del pueblo” (Communication at the service of the people). Navarrete’s film is just that: communication at the service of the people.

Learn more

'Mother, Country' has its world premiere at the Showroom on Wednesday 3 July as part of the Sheffield Film Festival.

The Showroom has level access to all four screens, lift access to the lower two screens, and disabled toilets on both floors. You can find full accessibility info on their website.

A version of this article first appeared in DMovies.

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