FILM REVIEW: Hora Chilena, Chilean refugees in Cambridge in a Britain at ease with itself

Written by David Lehmann on . Posted in Blog

Lady playing Chilean recorder in front of a dozens of black and white pictures of Chilean disappeared

On Wednesday December 11th, the entire Chilean community of Cambridge plus about a hundred of their friends gathered at the city’s Arts Picturehouse to watch the premiere of Hora Chilena, a documentary made by Camila Iturra, Lautaro Vargas and Kip Loades. The film is about two once unconnected groups, brought together by one of the great tragedies of the late twentieth century which still remains an emblematic and searing moment in the political memory of my generation.

It describes movingly but without sentimentality and with a good dose of humour, how solidarity and generosity can arise not only with grand causes but also personally between strangers brought together by a cause, and it also brings back the memory of a time in England and in Britain when the words ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum’ inspired sympathy rather than fear.

It reminds us of the powerful intimate feeling of liberation which is only known to those who, having lived in a political prison and under permanent threat of repression, realize they can walk the street without worrying who is following them or who might stop them. Political imprisonment is different because, unlike its non-political counterpart, there are no rules, no limits, no expectations of an end, only arbitrary authority.

The film has been made to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Chilean coup, but whereas other documentaries have focused on unsolved crimes, unconvicted perpetrators, and the shocking denial or (even more often) justification of those crimes which is still acceptable in public debate in Chile, this documentary has been made above all as an expression of gratitude to the people of Cambridge who welcomed Chilean refugees to live in their houses, and helped them in innumerable other ways to find housing and social welfare support, learn English, find schools for their children and learn the weird and wonderful ways of British bureaucracy.

It has been made by someone who arrived as a baby and has lived all her life in Cambridge, and who has now enabled people from her parents’ generation and her own to tell their stories, as well as giving voice to those who enabled them to find a place in Britain. The Chileans were a very mixed group – there were the extraordinarily courageous soldiers from the Chilean Air Force who narrowly escaped execution for treason because they had dissented from the coup or had somehow supported loyalty to the Constitution in the lead-up to the coup. One of them, the tall and ever handsome Enrique Ibañez, told how soon after he arrived he went in search of a park, an open space where he jumped off his bike throwing himself spread-eagled onto the grass to the amazement of onlookers who did not know how liberated he felt.

People coped with changes in their social standing which might have humiliated others: Leonardo Castillo, a university professor who ran the meeting halls at Parkside while he learnt English and prepared to enter a doctoral programme, economists who worked in restaurants as cooks, but also working class people, deeply rooted in Chilean ways, for whom another continent was a distant imagined entity, hardly a place where they might have to live.

And then there was gender trouble. In a narrative often heard from Chileans who came to Europe at that time, the women told how while they got jobs, fed their children and ran their households, some of their male companions had great difficulty in adapting to a world where they could no longer guarantee the household’s survival on their own and certainly not without performing domestic chores, changing nappies and the like.

Then there were the extraordinary Cambridge women who seemed to put their entire lives at the disposition of the refugees: the redoubtable Etel Shepherd who said that her daughters eventually asked whether to gain her attention they would have to ring her up and in a Chilean accent say: “Mrs. Shepherd, I have a problem”! Julia Napier who dragooned the leading private language schools in the city to provide free places so the refugees could learn English. It was a time when everything did indeed seem possible and everyone seemed well disposed and enthusiastic.

There was a universal theme in the Unidad Popular experiment which undoubtedly attracted solidarity and fellow-feeling across the world – unlike Peronism for example. Despite the appalling ferocity of the Argentine repression even from before the 1976 coup, Peronism was such a confusing political culture that it attracted little solidarity – and Argentines themselves seemed not to seek it out when they went into exile, as if they too had trouble explaining what it and they were all about.

But Chileans had no such trouble, and they also exuded a deep and disarming attachment to their country – something which endowed them with an unchallengeable aura of authenticity: to this day one can get good empanadas in Cambridge and to this day they meet for their annual Fiestas Patrias on September 18th. Few of those who came to Cambridge had been very prominent public figures, and some saw themselves as sympathizers who got caught up in the mayhem. But most were the dogged and often highly idealistic foot soldiers of one of the Unidad Popular parties. Camila’s mother told how a unit was instructed to kill all the members of her husband’s research institute in Talca – but somehow their commander held off, and she recalled his name with reverence.

If among the older generations there have been lives broken, lives reconstructed and lives renewed, the young generation had in some ways more complicated experiences especially as teenagers and adolescents. At a time when there were still even few South Asian children in Cambridge schools, they experienced the discomforts of being different, having strange names and coming from a country which no one had ever heard of. Most spoke now with strong Cambridge accents, and had married English spouses. They had imbibed their parents’ sense of national belonging, but when they went back to Chile, speaking Spanish with an English accent and unaccustomed to Chilean ways they often had trouble adapting and ended up coming back – ‘coming home’?

The discussion afterwards dealt a lot with the xenophobia, stoked or tolerated by politicians of all stripes which currently tarnishes British politics. The film had, perhaps with a little idealization, shown us a Britain still at ease with its position in the world, where educated middle class people had no qualms that they could do good for suffering others, even that they knew what was good for them; a Britain which my own mother also revered through her friendships with families from places in deepest Devon and Surrey who had taken her in hand after she arrived from Germany in 1936.

Some people believe that today’s bad atmosphere is a result of Thatcherism and Reaganomics and neoliberalism. No doubt, but the green and pleasant land which the refugees so readily embraced was also a land whose people were confident of their role and of the benefits which Britishness and Englishness brought to the rest of the world. Today’s mood is also a consequence of the loss of that confidence, of the multiple mixed feelings of guilt and hurt pride and economic decline which has accompanied that loss.

But the movement of people around the globe produces nothing if not the unexpected in people’s personal lives, and this is a film about personal lives and an unusual encounter. Perhaps that was a special time and certainly the people involved were special people. But that it is a good story is not in doubt: true individuals, each with their quirks and loves and strange tastes and aversions. If they had not been special people, this film would never have been made.


LAB Council Member David Lehmann is a social scientist who lived and worked for many years in Cambridge, where he became Director of the Institute of Latin American Studies. He had done ethnographic research in Chile in the late 1960s and was active with Dudley Seers and other British academics in establishing the World University Service scholarship programme for Chilean refugees.

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