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'Acta General De Chile': An Exile's Journey Back

May 10, 1987|GREGG BARRIOS

They may cut the flowers, but they won't hold back the spring.

--Quote by the late Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, seen everywhere in Chile.

"It wasn't the most courageous act of my life, but the most noble," is the way Chilean film maker-in-exile Miguel Littin described his clandestine return to Chile in 1985. Accompanied by three European film crews and later several makeshift Chilean ones, Littin filmed a searing documentary of life in Chile under the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's repressive government.

Permanently exiled since the fall of the leftist Allende government in 1973, Littin (whose "Actas de Marusia" and "Alsino and the Condor" were nominated for foreign-language-film Oscars) slipped back into his native country disguised as a businessman using a false passport. The film crews were dispatched with bogus (but government-approved) assignments to supposedly film banal but safe subjects in Chile. Despite a few close calls, everything went like clockwork.

After two months of filming--from Santiago and the National Palace to Neruda's home, Isla Negra, to the foot of the Andes, Littin returned to Europe, where 25 hours of footage shot by the various crews were waiting for him. The resulting four-hour opus, "Acta General de Chile" ("Chile: A General Record"), was shown with much success on Spanish-language television throughout the world early in 1986. Later, it went on to receive additional accolades at the Venice, Toronto, and Havana film festivals.

Littin has just edited a 102-minute theatrical version entitled "Actas de Chile" with English subtitles. It is scheduled for U.S. release in late summer after the film's American distributors (Joseph Papp, head of the New York Shakespeare Festival, and producer Edward Pressman) premiere it during New York's annual Festival Latino in August.

Littin's journey is also the subject of a new book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez to be published this month by Henry Holt Co. (more on the book later).

To understand the entire impact of Littin's journey home, one has to go back before the fall of Salvador Allende's Popular Unity government in 1973. Littin was then head of that government's Chile Films. His unique documentary style of film making was already evident in his early 1969 feature "The Jackal of Nahualtoro," a stinging indictment on capital punishment based on a true story of a mass murderer who is rehabilitated and then executed.

Since Pinochet's rise to power, Littin has lived in exile in Mexico and, more recently, Spain. In 1983, "Alsino and the Condor," his feature about the birth of the Nicaraguan Sandinista struggle against the Somoza government, was not only nominated for an Oscar but was also selected as the most popular film at the Los Angeles Film Exposition (Filmex) that year.

Despite his success, Littin spent the next two years in Spain struggling to get his next film made, but failed to secure financing. During that creative lull, Littin toyed with the idea of filming in Chile. The fact that he is one of 5,000 Chileans forbidden to re-enter the country, and the knowledge of what the Pinochet government might do if he was caught, didn't deter Littin from returning.

"While I was underground in Chile, I adopted two or three different personalities. I felt like the Invisible Man. I'd see old friends of mine on the streets but they didn't recognize me," Littin recalled recently after a standing-room-only screening of his documentary at UC Santa Barbara. "My film is an eyewitness account. I used film like a notebook--a dictation of notes. That's why I called it actas " (which translates as letters or records of proceedings ).

"This film was a personal experience for me, a very intimate thing. I needed to go back to my country, even though the dictatorship wouldn't permit me to do so or to even have contact with my people. This film seemed the best way for me to do it. Being an exile is like blank pages in a book. Those pages somehow have to be filled. Now, I feel less like an exile."

Littin's odyssey into his native country struck Nobel-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez ("One Hundred Years of Solitude") as even more interesting. Both men, good friends, have collaborated in the past (Garcia Marquez wrote the screenplay for Littin's film "Montiel's Widow"). Upon his return from Chile, Littin was interviewed by Garcia Marquez for 18 hours. The result: "La Aventura de Miguel Littin Clandestino en Chile" ("Clandestine in Chile: The Adventure of Miguel Littin"), a 150-page book in which Littin, in first-person narrative, details his transformation from a bearded, scraggly-looking bohemian cineaste into a clean-shaven, bourgeois "mummy" armed with a falsified passport, a surrogate wife and over 20,000 feet of film.

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