Message from Chile

Creator's Statement

After the military coup in 1973 and the displacement many had to endure, Chilean filmmakers narrated their own exiles and those of others. More than two hundred films and videos make up the corpus known as “Chilean Exile Cinema,” produced in countries such as Canada, France, Finland, Germany (East and West), Mozambique, and Sweden, among others.[1] We have examined this complex cultural phenomenon from different angles in our previous works, emphasizing the modes of production, circulation, and distribution of this exilic corpus (Palacios 2016) or studying the political and aesthetic features through which these films underscore exile as an experience that never ceases (Ramírez-Soto 2014). Here we adopt a narrower focus, by concentrating on the presence of letters in Chilean exile cinema, as well as a different methodological approach, since the video essay allows us a more tactile engagement with these images and sounds of displacement. Through the cinematic exploration of recurring tropes such as writing, voicing, and reading letters, we suggest that epistolary exchange emerges to mark distance and to inscribe the geographical and temporal dislocation caused by exile and the impossibility of returning to the homeland.

This characteristic should not be surprising. As Hamid Naficy asserted, “exile and epistolarity necessitate one another, for distance and absence drive them both. However, by addressing someone in an epistle, an illusion of presence is created that hovers in the text’s interstices” (2001: 5). In a scene from Wenn wir zusammen lebten…/If we Lived Together… (West Germany, 1983), director Antonio Skármeta posits in voiceover a similar reflection, accompanying the image of actor Oscar Castro reading a letter in the middle of the street: “Absence and distance are an everyday dimension of our lives.” Letters thus become the indelible mark of that distance at the same time that they allow for a potential reparation of absence.

In Chilean exile cinema characters write, expect, receive, and read letters. We see pens moving through various kinds of paper and diverse body postures when sitting to write or when beginning to read. We hear voices which sometimes coincide with what is written in an overlapping of text, sound, and image, as in Fragmentos de un diario inacabado/Fragments from an Unfinished Diary (Angelina Vázquez, Finland/Chile, 1983). Most times, nonetheless, speech moves forward in an oblique direction with regards to the paper, reconstructing words we will never see or anticipating the hands which are about to write these soon-to-be letters.

These two forms of appearance of the epistle, through the surfaces of papers and through the voices that turn a letter into spoken words, constitute the center of our video essay. Our work establishes relations between various films from Carmen Castillo, Marilú Mallet, Percy Matas, Raúl Ruiz, Claudio Sapiaín, Antonio Skármeta, and Angelina Vázquez, among others, to account for the ways in which Chilean exile cinema resorts to the letter in order to represent the unavoidable rift imposed by uprootment. The video essay avoids an excessive fragmentation of these clips. First, because the circulation of most of these films has been scarce, and we want to contribute to their visibility. Second, because we want the letters invoked in these segments to speak in all their political and affective force. We do, however, provoke associations through the editing. For instance, a letter written in paper (Three Crowns of the Sailor, Raúl Ruiz, France, 1983) connects to another one read out loud (Los transplantados, Percy Matas, France, 1975). The voice of a Swedish child saying farewell to a Chilean friend at the airport (Eran unos que venían de Chile, Claudio Sapiaín, Sweden/Chile, 1986) gives way to that of a returnee teenager in Chile who reads in German the letter he receives from an old friend (Aquí donde yo vivo, Carlos Puccio, Germany, 1994). Music appears in all its therapeutic power to deal with family losses, as in Fragments from an Unfinished Diary and Recado de Chile/Message from Chile (Collective, 1979), one of the first Chilean films with testimonies of mothers of the disappeared.

Our video essay borrows its title from this documentary, made by a collective formed by Chilean filmmakers residing in Chile, who shot the images, and by Chileans in exile, who edited the material in Cuba. Even if we do not explicitly explore this kind of exchange in our video essay, we rescue this memory in our title in order to stress that Chilean filmmakers, in addition to turning to letters in their narrative and documentary work, also exchanged epistles, audio recordings, and 16mm and 35mm footage themselves. This dialogue between “inxiles” and exiles is represented metaphorically in our video, by superimposing a letter written in Recado de Chile with one that is received and read in Eran unos que venían de Chile.

Lastly, the video essay is punctuated by three brief sequences. These have neither voice nor text, but are accompanied by the same music by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, extracted from Unfinished Diary (Marilú Mallet, 1982). In these fragments we see a desk in which a typewriter occupies a central place, the reading of an old letter, and fingers feverishly pressing the keys of yet another typewriter. These scenes point to the key role the act of writing and reading letters plays in breaching the aching distance of the far-away homeland. The typing fingers in the last image from Calle Sante Fe (Carmen Castillo, France/Chile, 2006) end our audiovisual proposal to suggest that exile always remains an open and unfinished experience.

[1] For an overview of Chilean exile cinema, see Zuzana M. Pick (1987 and 1988) and Jacqueline Mouesca (1988: 137-158).

Works Cited:

Mouesca, Jacqueline. Plano secuencia de la memoria de Chile: veinticinco años de cine chileno (1960-1985). Madrid: Ediciones del Litoral, 1988.

Naficy, Hamid. An Accented Cinema. Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking. Princeton: University of Princeton Press, 2001.

Palacios, José Miguel. “Resistance vs. Exile: The Political Rhetoric of Chilean Exile Cinema in the 1970s.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 57 (2016). Access October 1st, 2018.

Pick, Zuzana M. “Chilean Cinema in Exile (1973-1986). The Notion of Exile: A Field of Investigation and its Conceptual Framework.” Framework 34 (1988): 39-57.

------. “Chilean Cinema: Ten Years of Exile (1973-1983).” Jump Cut 32 (1987). Access October 1st, 2018.

Ramírez-Soto, Elizabeth. “Journeys of Desexilio: The Bridge Between the Past and the Present,” Rethinking History nº18, vol.3 (2014): 438-451.


José Miguel Palacios is a postdoctoral fellow in the Art Department at Universidad Alberto Hurtado in Santiago, Chile. His essays have appeared in Jump Cut, Archivos de la Filmotecala FugaIberoamericana: América Latina-España-Portugal, and in the collections Cinematic Homecomings: Exile and Return in Transnational Cinema (2015) and New Documentaries in Latin America (2014). He received a Ph.D. in Cinema Studies from New York University in 2017.

Elizabeth Ramírez-Soto is an Assistant Professor in the School of Cinema at San Francisco State University. She is the coeditor of Nomadías: El cine de Marilú Mallet, Valeria Sarmiento y Angelina Vázquez (2016). Her essays have appeared in Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, Rethinking History, and in the collection Doing Women’s Film History (2015). She received a Ph.D. in Film and Television Studies from the University of Warwick in 2014.


While watching this video essay, I kept being reminded of Fernando Solanas’ Tangos: El Exilio de Gardel/Tangos: The Exile of Gardel, a mid-1980s film exploring the fragmented lives of Argentine exiles in Paris, desperately attempting to communicate their pain to people (the French) who cannot possibly understand. Throughout the film, the teenage children of the exiles, displaced enough to have fewer attachments or memories of their homeland, rehearse a street performance (in Spanish) about their lives; “Act 2” of the film begins with the girls facing the camera and singing about “tangos de papel,” a phrase which can be translated as both “paper tangos” and “everyday tangos”: “Letters of exile come and go/Bringing us emotions like daily bread/Errands and news that give us/The proof that everyone is still there.” The sequence also shows nearly the entire cast writing, sending and receiving letters – so many letters that they fall down a staircase, or erupt in a flourish from the back of a mail truck.

Letters are an everyday occurrence – and yet they are desperately special, because they are objects that, for the exile in particular, provide tangible proof of a life that persists. Like letters, however, cinema also travels and offers “proof of life” from afar. The story of post-Allende Chile and its cinema depends on countries being far, far apart; as the quoted passage from Hamid Naficy states, “distance and absence drives them both.” The premiere cinematic document from the Pinochet years remains Patricio Guzmán’s documentary La batalla de Chile/The Battle of Chile, a movie which would never have been made were it not for many reels of celluloid escaping via Swedish diplomatic pouches bound for Europe.

Palacios and Ramírez-Soto’s essay crafts a new document from old documents about documents, exploring the exilic necessity for tangible objects as proof of a life. I particularly like how the videoessay treats the polylingual nature of these letters: in Spanish, of course, but also German, Finnish, and French, proof (once again) that the exilic is implicitly multi-directional.

A final thought: The video essay does a spectacular job of unearthing films that have fallen out of circulation and might be very unfamiliar to those outside of Chilean cinema; there is no need, for example, for Guzmán’s internationally recognized work in this piece. The materiality of these films, in videotape and celluloid formats, has been transferred into the digital in order to craft the essay – but that the films survived at all depends on the original materials existing as objects in the first place. This is much like the letters-as-objects themselves. This begs the question of representation within the contemporary exilic situation: “proof of life” comes from more ephemeral messages via text and YouTube. In the end, Palacios and Ramírez-Soto might be asking another question: what happens to the exiled – and their representation – when there are no pieces of paper or plastic videotapes to physically hold and treasure?


In “Message from Chile: Letters in Exile Cinema,” José Miguel Palacios and Elizabeth Ramírez-Soto focus eloquently on one particular aspect of films made by Chilean filmmakers in exile -the writing, reading and receiving of letters across the geographical divide of politically enforced separation.

The video essay’s repetition of the images and sounds of letter writing and reading as well as the associated paraphernalia (ink, pen, paper, a typewriter, desk), in visual representation and voice over produces the letter as a metonymic detail – symbolizing, in the words of its authors “the geographical and temporal dislocation caused by exile and the impossibility of returning to the homeland.”

In addition to the focus on letters as written and spoken words, the video essay also centres on the tactile nature of the letter as a precious material object embodying sometimes; ongoing friendship or even the spirit, passion and nationalism of Chile as the home territory (Recado de Chile). The import of the letter as a material object is reinforced through sound; we hear the crinkle of paper as a letter is passed from one little boy unable to read his grandfather’s handwriting to another little boy or the tap tapping of typewriter keys.

Palacios and Ramírez-Soto’s have crafted a magnificent video essay that, through the trope of the letter, connects these disparate Chilean exilic texts through shared themes of displacement, loss and longing.