The Embassy, 1973

Filmed in the wake of the staged military coup d’état on September 11, 1973 that overthrew the leftist government of elected Chilean President Salvador Allende, Chris Marker’s The Embassy is something of a cross between the immersive docufiction of Peter Watkins and the reflexive diaries of Jonas Mekas in its clinical dissection of the zeitgeist of transformative history. Prefaced as an amateur, vérité-shot Super 8 found film recovered at an unspecified embassy in the immediate days following a coup, the unidentified narrator’s pre-emptive declaration, “This is not a film” serves as both a portent and potent statement on the myth of cinema as a direct representation of reality. In a sense, Marker reinforces the idea of the camera gaze as an invariably compromised one: arbitrated by the limitations of placement (as political refugees passing time in relative comfort inside the embassy rather than dissidents struggling to evade capture – and summary execution – outside diplomatically immune walls), resolution of information (selectively filtered through disrupted media outlets and limited channels of communication on the state of unrest), and subjectivity of human sentiment.

Marker alludes to this assignment of perspective and consequent narrowing of filmed – and filmable – representation in a sequence that illustrates the refugees’ makeshift activities as they struggle to pass the time while waiting word on their safe passage by playing games and recounting stories of their ordeals, remarking that for these displaced people, outside has become synonymous with before, residing not only in a state of limbo, but also at a point of no return. Framed against the images of a photojournalist continuing to take photographs that remain undeveloped, their existence becomes emblematic of their own irresolution and dislocated identities, a state of figurative transcendence that is reflected in the narrator’s observation of a mother and child singing together at a kitchen table that, in its innocence, also evokes a sense of irretrievable loss: “What we call past is somehow similar to what we call abroad. It is not a matter of distance, it is the passing of a boundary.”

Moreover, in depicting the ideological intransigence and petty infighting that continue to surface in the aftermath of the coup, Marker also converges towards Nagisa Oshima’s Night and Fog in Japan in its self-critical deconstruction of the failure of the left movement, where the attempted radicalization of the bourgeois through engagement has, instead, produced a contamination of values, abandoning the plight of the working class and bartering ideology for privilege (a betrayal that is implied in the narrator’s observation of the absence of workers who seek refuge in the embassy). It is this specter of unreconciled factionalism and disconnection from ideals that is also invoked in the film’s subverted final shot, a reopened moral wound that integrally connects the deflated idealism of May 68 with the end of the Allende presidency in Chile – the collapsed dream of a social revolution.

© Acquarello 2008. All rights reserved.
First published in The Auteurs Notebook, 04/03/08.