The Chilean Building is an extremely personal documentary examining a group of Chilean dissidents’ decision to return to their country in the late 70s after after being exiled to Paris during the oppressive rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet. Deemed too dangerous for their young children to accompany them, they made the difficult decision to leave them behind with a selection of adults — not necessarily the ones who were their parents.
Eventually relocating to Havana, where the Cuban government understandably sympathized with the revolutionaries, these displaced Chilean kids were folded into a new age-y program that the dissidents termed “Project Homes,” a kind of large, collective family in which revolutionaries who understood childcare divided the children into groups called “family units.” It was a pragmatic solution to a situation in which only a small number of adults were on hand to care for a horde of children. One of the happier results of this forced experiment was that unrelated kids, often with no siblings of their own, suddenly became one another’s de facto brothers and sisters, while the caretaker adults became some version of parents. The unhappier results, bubbling over a generation down the road, are the subject of this documentary.
The Project Homes arrangement, while not ideal even by the standards of the post free love 70s, may seem less strange if viewed in the context of revolutionary life, which aimed to disrupt social norms. It developed mainly due to the women dissidents’ feeling that it would be unfair for them to be left behind, out of the fight for a free Chile, simply because it’s customarily a woman’s job to care for children. They wanted to fight too, and so, since equality was one of goal of the attempt to overthrow Pinochet, it was deemed a worthy enough concern to dramatically rearrange the lives of every child the dissidents had. The decision was made partially as a nod to women’s rights, which were being trampled under an oppressive regime, but it’s only thirty years later that the issue of the children’s rights is being given its due.
Filmmaker Macarena Aguiló, one of the Project Homes children herself, doesn’t have to do a whole lot to elicit the kinds of moving interviews that make personal documentaries like this worth watching. While her general aim is to give the aging dissidents a chance to speak about their mass child-abandonment, she spends much of the film playing back audio recordings of her happy times in Project Homes, reading heartfelt letters she long ago exchanged with her parents, from Chile to Cuba and back, and listening sympathetically to over-the-hill revolutionaries as they try to make sense out of the hard choices they made for their cause. Aguiló’s job in making this film was pretty much laid out for her. The parents and children all make for more-than-willing interview subjects, as most of them have patched up old wounds and remain in contact — all she had to do was not fumble it. In a quiet way, she nailed it. Having the children and their estranged parents available for her cameras erased both the need for any cooked-up mystery and for phony docu-tricks. Uncovering vulnerability and filming it sympathetically are the hallmarks of the personal doc. While Aguiló often seems too overcome with emotion to ask tough questions, she also avoids pot-stirring accusations; her sincerity more than carries the film.
Light on the history (anything you don’t know about the turmoil of modern Chile you’re going to have to go read up on, because Aguiló isn’t offering a history lesson), heavy on mushy, pseudo-spiritual animations (Aguilo’s “brother” Gerardo has become an animator in his adulthood, and he supplies a half dozen hand-drawn short films about floating children escaping from various prisons), The Chilean Building nevertheless has both the resolve to give its interviewees a full say and a subject more than worthy of its 90-minute run time. The overall sentiment is delicately balanced between concern for the psychological damage unwittingly done to the children, and an understanding of the cause for which the parents fought. No conclusions are made, but it’s clear that none need to be.