By Nina Serrano, Co-Director of Que Hacer/What Is to Be Done (1973)
Celebrating International Women’s Day 2018
Reflections On Que Hacer
As one of the three directors of the film “Que Hacer/What Is To Be Done” shot in 1970 in Chile and commercially released in 1973, I watched the film again in 2018, only two years short of 50 years later. I have changed. The planet has changed. Chile has changed. But US imperialist foreign policy has not. Also unchanged is the dilemna of Americans like the film’s protagonist Suzanne McCloud, a disillusioned Peace Corps volunteer seeking change.
The film opens with the Chilean character Simon Vallejo observing that Latin American left unity must stay intact. He embraced Simon Bolivar’s call for continental unity, applying it to the need for strengthening Allende’s Unidad Popular coalition party.
The female lead character Suzanne Mc Cloud turns for answers to the older, more seasoned Chilean intellectual revolutionary Simon, closely allied with Cuba and Fidel. He can not provide them. He says “Today’s answers will not be the same as tomorrow’s. You have to find them daily in your own reality.”
The making and scripting of the film itself was improvisational, reinventing itself each day in the changing context of the daily, volatile 1970 Chilean pre-election scene. Our guiding aesthetic decision was to create a “Brechtian” film that mixed fictional dramatic footage with documentary footage that we shot live as it happened. The actors improvised the dialogue while living and immersed in the situation.
We adapted German theatre artist and poet Bertolt Brecht’s idea that the audience should not be allowed to wallow in emotion. But rather, they should be jolted or distanced out of the emotional realm into the rational to begin thinking about the real life issues that the fictional situation raised. This technique often translates from the German as “alienation.”
In the film, we tried to develop this “alienating” effect through inserting the image and music Country Joe McDonald, whose haunting lyrics comment on the action at its climatic moments like a Greek chorus. Another distancing or alienating device is interposing interviews with leftist MIR leader Sergio Zorrilla. He critiques the fictional elements of the film with his theoretical remarks. We also interjected occasional shots of the film crew in action. We catch a glimpse of young Chilean filmmaker Jorge Mueller who served as camera assistant. Three years later after the 1973 coup he was thrown alive out of a helicopter by the Pinochet Military Junta. Many of the film participants were murdered, tortured, jailed, or exiled, causing a permanent pain in the lives of all of us who worked on the film.
The documentary film footage also plays an alienating or distancing role because it is complicated by the appearance of the actors inside the live real documentary action. The violence in the film is both actual and acted. During the filming like in so many film shoots, accidents and physical injuries occur. When the actor Pablo de la Barra, playing the young militant, leaps into the Mapuche River after an aborted kidnapping, he was actually hurt. Three years later, after receiving the news of coup, I thought of him again when I learned that the river had turned bloody red from the military murders. The actors and crew believed in this anti-imperialist film and took risks, acting for real in the heightened election atmosphere of life and death.
The film still feels relevant 48 years later even with everything I now know and have experienced. Of course, Sandra Archer, the lead role, has passed, my co-directors Saul Landau and Raul Ruiz have passed. But the “regime change” actions of the United States and Latin America remains such as currently in Honduras, Venezuela and Cuba. This present administration is overtly greedy, racist, misogonist, zenophonic. They don’t even pretend to be kind or nice and even plans to create a bigger wall on the Mexican border. .
If we’re in Suzanne McCloud’s situation, where we feel like we want to be part of what she was calling “the revolution,” but what we today call “the resistance,” what do we do? That’s still the question. “Que hacer?” What is to be done?”
The seed of the idea for the film was first planted by Fidel Castro in Cuba, in 1969, a year before the filming. Castro had invited Saul, our children Greg, Valerie, and me for the TV viewing of the first US moon landing. As we were leaving, he commented “The next film you ought to make is a film about Chile because they’re going to have an election, which is going to change history. They might vote in socialism, bypassing revolution, deaths, and civil wars.”
For Saul and me, that was all we needed. Saul had made a documentary film about Fidel the year before in 1968. I worked on it but was not credited because KQED-TV insisted that wives should not get any credit, since it was our duty to just help our husbands. So when wives translated, or stayed up all night typing, or all the things that filmmakers’ wives often did in those days, we received no pay or credit. This time around, Saul and I decided to work together as equals in a film project.
We left excited from the meeting with Fidel Castro. Then, we began seriously researching the Chilean situation. We already had a lot of connections with Latin American left intellectuals. We had only the working title “The Ghost of Che.” That’s how it started.
One thing led to another. We joined forces with James Beckett as the producer and formed Lobo Films. I had worked with Sandra Archer in the SF Mime Toupe production of Moliere’s Tartuffe and was taking improv classes at The Committee. So finding San Francisco actors was relatively easy. I’d already worked with Country Joe Mc Donald on an anti-Vietnam war play. Saul Landau and Jim Beckett began the monumental task of raising money. They traveled to Chile, with a Chilean friend, Dario Pulgar. They recruited technical and administrative staff and Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz to direct the Chilean actors. By the election season of 1970, we had amassed a Chilean and US team of actors and production crew of about 40 people, made contact with the diverse Chilean left organizations, and rented a large communal house in Santiago to be our base. We agreed that I would direct the American actors, Raul Ruiz would direct the Chilean actors and Saul would direct the documentary filming.
It took 3 years to raise the funds and complete the editing in San Francisco. By the time the film was finished, and we had a film distibutor, the bloody Sept 11, 1973 coup happened. The New York City theatre where the movie was premiering was menaced by right wing-bomb threats. Nonetheless, we received a decent review from The New York Times and won international film awards in Manheim, Germany and Venice, Italy. Saul, Raul and I shared Best Direction award from the Venice film festival.
Saul Landau and I were by then separated. We both joined the international solidarity movement with the people of Chile. When Saul’s Chilean colleague Orlando Letelier was murdered by the Chilean Junta agents in Washington DC, he helped mount a successful intensive international investigation to bring the assassins to justice and wrote the prize winning book, “Murder on Embassy Row.”
I worked as the staff person for the San Francisco Free Chile Center, wrote and produced a play about the Chilean underground resistance called “Weavings” and produced Quilapayun‘s “Cantata de Santa Maria de Iquique” for local TV. I also produced some public affairs pieces with Fernando Alegria about the Chilean coup.
After a 17-year heroic struggle, the Chilean people regained their democracy! May they serve as an inspiration to us to uphold ours in the face of fascist aggression. They are with us in California today and in the legacy of Joaquin Murieta’s resistance to anti-Latino racism. We are all connected.
View the film here: