I watch a lot of documentaries that make me angry. As reductive or pat as it may sound I think it’s fair to say that in many ways you can chart a person’s political development by noting the documentaries that made them the angriest. The world is, after all, a deeply unjust place, and anger is a perfectly rational response to that injustice. It is part of the mechanism that leads to change. It may not be the underlying driver—that title belongs, I think, to compassion—but it is anger that very often provides the spark which finally lights the fuse.
It’s an ongoing and symbiotic process, this political molding of a person by the art they consume. It feeds into you, and you into it. If I was to mark out my own personal journey of political development by way of documentaries I think it would look something like this:
Palestine Is Still The Issue;
Bowling For Columbine;
Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room;
An Inconvenient Truth;
The War You Don’t See;
Though it’s true that these movies vary quite wildly when it comes to their formal innovation or depth of artistry, they all have a titanic power in terms of their content. Their messages are potent. Looking back from where I find myself in my life now, they are the ones I would say have shaped my understanding or view of the world the most—as well as being the ones that have moved me emotionally more than any others. I suppose those two things are related.
I recently had the privilege of attending a preview screening of a documentary that is just finding wider release. After walking out of the cinema at the end with the corners of my eyes stinging from tears of both incandescent rage and heart-swelling joy, I have no qualms at all about adding Felipe Bustos Sierra’s Nae Pasaran to that list.
You may remember Nae Pasaran from an article I wrote about it almost exactly a year ago. The film was then in its infancy, the filmmakers still seeking funding in order to be able to finish telling its story. Happily, the Kickstarter set up to do that more than achieved its goal, and Nae Pasaran has been on limited release for the past few months, slowly increasing its distribution and reach as word of mouth of this remarkable project has spread.
If you watched that video or read my earlier post you will know that Nae Pasaran concerns itself with the story of a day that is burned forever into the history of Latin America. September 11th, 1973. A dark day on which a right-wing military coup attacked its own nation’s capital and violently overthrew the Chilean government of democratically elected President Salvador Allende. Decades of authoritarian rule marked by a particularly bloodthirsty reign of terror that included the murder of thousands and the torture and disappearance of tens of thousands would follow. The coup that led to this horror was, naturally, backed by the United States of America. The CIA and Henry Kissinger were particularly invested in Allende’s removal. As I wrote here:
Chile’s democratically elected government could not stand as an example to others. There is nothing more harmful than an excess of democracy. It would have to fall. The CIA and the Washington Ad Hoc Committee on Chile drafted a plan to light the way forward: suspend aid, use bribery and other means to turn the military against the civilian government, take advantage of the inevitable turmoil to depose Allende, overturn his policies and return to the privatisation and free trade deals that mark business as usual. The plan was delivered to President Nixon and moved ahead. There were two broad wings of the plan: the ‘soft line’ and the ‘hard line’. ‘Hard line’ meant military coup. In a conversation with CIA Director Richard Helms at the time, President Nixon described the ‘soft line’ as ‘making the economy scream.’ The United States ambassador to Chile, Edward Korry — by all accounts classified as a typical Kennedy-type liberal — described the soft line thus: ‘do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty.’
Eventually the ‘hard line’ prevailed, and the military, navy, and national police force, led in part by General Augusto Pinochet, overthrew Allende’s government, ending in the siege at La Moneda [the presidential palace in Santiago, in which Allende died], and they assumed immediate control. Allende’s Popular Unity government fell, and a junta was established. The United States recognised its legitimacy with astute haste.
The death of Salvador Allende and Chile’s dream of socialism at the hands of US-sponsored fascism is a heartbreaking and rage-inducing story. It is also one that has been told numerous times by many talented people. Simply re-telling it is not what Nae Pasaran sets out to achieve. Instead the film does something quite incredible: It uses a very personal lens to examine a story on the peripheries of the tragedy in South America, and in doing so it finds amidst the horror vast reserves of hope. The coup in Chile is merely the starting point, the fulcrum around which the story of Nae Pasaran turns. The actual focus of the film is on East Kilbride, on the borders of Glasgow in Scotland, over seven thousand miles away from Santiago.
When Pinochet’s forces attacked the Chilean capital, his airforce used Hawker Hunter planes in their assault. Hawker Hunters are British-made, and they ran on Rolls-Royce engines. By the time of the coup in Chile the only way these engines could be repaired and maintained was by the workers at the Rolls-Royce factory in East Kilbride. In the pre-internet era news may have spread relatively slowly, but footage of the Hawker Hunters bombarding the presidential palace during the coup nevertheless made its way around the world, feeding into a cresting wave of international outrage and mounting solidarity as it did. It is so often the way in this life that we see something terrible unfolding somewhere around the world and in our empathy we agonise and ask ourselves, ‘What is to be done? What can I do to help?’ The answers are not always clear. Despair can set in. Action can seem worthless. This wasn’t the case at East Kilbride:
The workers at Kilbride, struck by the imagery being beamed to Scotland all the way from South America, recognised the planes involved and they knew there and then that fate had dealt them a singular hand. Their factory was the only place these machines of war could be serviced. Their hands were the only hands that could send them back in working order to Chile to serve Pinochet’s regime. These workers, despite being almost as far removed physically from the horror unfolding halfway across the world as was possible, felt instantly connected to it, and they knew they had no choice. They refused to service the machines of death. They did not let them pass through their factories.
For four long years the workers kept up the boycott. The engines sat useless, piling up, rusting. Then, one night, they disappeared.
This, then, is where the story that Nae Pasaran so deftly tells begins. At its outset it provides crucial context, quickly clueing in anyone who may not be fully up to speed on the historical situation. It also introduces us to the filmmaker, Felipe Bustos Sierra, who is our onscreen guide through the movie, playing the part of interviewer and investigator. Felipe’s presence is key. Not just because the movie is his baby and quite clearly an immense labour of love, but because, as the son of Chilean exiles, he has a deep, personal connection to the story. Away from the background information—which is delivered with a light yet respectful touch via voicover, archival footage, and computer graphics—the movie’s main narrative thrust involves Felipe tracking down the surviving workers of East Kilbride. He tells them how as a young boy he would hear stories of brave Scottish workers who stood in solidarity with the people of his nation when they needed it the most.
(Robert Sommervile, Bob Fulton, Felipe Bustos Sierra, Stuart Barrie, John Keenan)
And this is the kicker of the whole thing. Because this is all news to the men of East Kilbride.
Led by engine inspector and WWII vet Bob Fulton, the workers downed their tools not out of desire for recognition, but purely out of need for action. They did so in defiance of the bosses and the media at the time, who would have preferred to see profit be put above people, and who threatened them to toe the line. In their action they defied official British policy too. Against titanic pressures Fulton and his co-workers did what they felt was right, simply because they knew it was their duty. Their moral compass would allow no other course of action. Until Felipe tracked them down, at considerable effort, they never did get to see what, if any, consequences their actions might have had. They would simply return to work, the engines having disappeared one night, and for decades the memory of those rusting engines of war would be just that: A memory. An affirmation of righteous action, though one with perhaps no significant real-world consequence. Nae Pasaran weaves together numerous interviews with the East Kilbride workers, and you get the feeling that this group of funny, insightful, warm-yet-hardened working class men had long ago accepted that consequence was not ever the point. The point was to take a stand.
Nae Pasaran presents the case that their stand made an immense difference. The presentation of this case forms the other strand of the movie’s main narrative. Felipe cuts between interviews with the men in Scotland and with people back in Chile, and here is where we see the impact they had. Chilean union members tortured by Pinochet’s regime talk tearfully about how hearing of the men from East Kilbride over the prison radio gave them heart to endure another day. Activists describe how the workers’ stand impacted the international solidarity movement. Felipe also interviews a man who was a high ranking officer of the Chilean army during the coup on the side of Pinochet. He describes his then-frustration at the Scottish workers’ actions and he refuses to give merit or even understanding to their act of solidarity. Nae Pasaran presents its story quite simply. It doesn’t play about with the form too much. And it really doesn’t need to. The story and the characters here are so compelling and engaging that any fancy touches might well distract from them. The film’s ethos echoes its subjects: It is direct and modest. One of Felipe’s cleverest touches is the way he doles out information to respective parties: Watching the veteran workers of East Kilbride react to the interviews from Chile describing how much of an impact they had is an incredibly moving experience. They are hearing first-hand accounts of the difference they made. One of them very modestly says that there’s really no need for thanks, but a warm smile plays on his face and you can see the past being re-contextualised in his still bright eyes, and it almost brings me to tears again just thinking about that moment.
The denouement of Nae Pasaran sees the men of East Kilbride travel to Chile to receive awards for their decades-old act of solidarity. Remembering the short speech that Bob Fulton gives by way of thanks actually does bring a tear to my eye.
Bob and his colleagues, Stuart Barrie, John Keenan, Robert Somerville are—to a man—wonderful interview subjects. Whether chatting to them jovially in the pub as a group—‘Don’t you start with the war stories!’—or in their homes individually, Felipe has a wealth of character, memory, perspective, and humour to draw on from them. Their resilience and moral clarity shines through, and it hearkens back to an era in which unions still had enough power to be able to back such a radical action as the men’s refusal to work the engines. In a Q&A that followed the screening I attended, one of the workers, John Keenan, responded to a question about how an action such as theirs would play out today, in a labour landscape of diminished union power. The view was not entirely positive. Nevertheless, next to John sat Sergio Requena-Rueda. Sergio was a student leader and trade union activist during Pinochet’s coup. Arrested by the secret police and tortured at the time, here he gave brave, warm testament to the impact that John and his colleagues’ actions had. Sergio spoke of the dark depths that the unimaginably inhumane treatment took him to, and how he was lifted up by word of this brave, selfless act of solidarity happening half the world away. Tears filled the room and the message was clear: It doesn’t matter if it’s difficult; we stand together or we fall.
(John Keenan, Sergio Requena-Rueda, Felipe Bustos Sierra)
The truth is I could spill a lot more words on Nae Pasaran. It is a movie that resonated with me incredibly. More importantly, however, I think it resonates powerfully with the times we are living in. In a world marked by a rising fascist tide hope can feel like a receding property. It is not. Not while we are willing to stand up for each other. Nae Pasaran reminds us that no matter how dark the night, dawn will always come so long as we stand together and fight back the horrors as one. It is one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had in the cinema. See this movie.