Miguel Littin - Director

Nationality: Chilean. Born: Palmilla (Colchagua), Chile, 9 August 1942. Education: Theatre School of the University of Chile, Santiago. Family: Married Eli Menz. Career: TV director and producer, 1963; stage director and actor, and assistant on several films, 1964–67; founding member, Committee of the Popular Unity Filmmakers, 1969; named director of national production company Chile Films by Salvador Allende, 1970; made weekly newsreels for Chile Films, 1970–71; emigrated to Mexico following coup d'etat, 1973; member of Executive Committee of Latin American Filmmakers, 1974. Awards: Chilean Critics Prize, for El Chacal de Nahueltoro , 1970.

Films as Director and Scriptwriter:


Por la tierra ajena ( On Foreign Land )


El chacal de Nahueltoro ( The Jackal of Nahueltoro )


Compañero Presidente


La tierra prometida ( The Promised Land )


El recurso del método ( Viva el Presidente ; Reasons of State ) (co-sc)


La viuda de Montiel ( Montiel's Widow )


Alsino y el cóndor ( Alsino and the Condor )


Actas de Marusia ( Letters from Marusia )


Acta General de Chile ( General Statement on Chile )


Sandino (+ sc)


Los Naufragos


Tierra del Fuego

Other Films:


Yo tenía un camarada ( I Had a Comrade ) (Soto) (role)


Mundo mágico ( Magic World ) (Soto) (role); ABC do amor ( The ABC of Love ) (role)


By LITTIN: books—

Cine chileno: La tierra prometida , Caracas, 1974.

El Chacal de Nahueltoro: La tierra prometida , Mexico City, 1977.

By LITTIN: articles—

"Film in Chile," an interview in Cineaste (New York), Spring 1971.

Interview with M. Torres, in Cine Cubano (Havana), no. 76/77, 1972.

"Culture populaire et lutte impérialiste," an interview with J.-R. Huleu and others, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), July/August 1974.

Interview with Marcel Martin, in Ecran (Paris), November 1977.

"Cine Chileno en exilio," an interview with Gastón Ancelovici, in Contracampo (Madrid), December 1979.

Interview with Emilia Palma, in Cine Cubano (Havana), no. 100, 1981.

"Lo desmesurado, el espacio real del sueño americano," in Cine Cubano (Havana), no. 105, 1983.

"Coming Home," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), January/February 1986.

"Unter falschem Namen," an interview with A. Eichhorn, in Film und Fernsehen (Berlin), July 1987.

On LITTIN: books—

Bolzoni, Francesco, El cine de Allende , Valencia, 1974.

Chanan, Michael, editor, Chilean Cinema , London, 1976.

García Marquéz, Gabriel, Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littin , New York, 1987.

On LITTIN: articles—

Wilson, David, "Aspects of Latin American Political Cinema," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1972.

Burton, Julianne, " The Promised Land ," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1975.

Scott, R., "The Arrival of the Instrument in Flesh and Blood: Deconstruction in Littin's Promised Land ," in Ciné-Tracts (Montreal), Spring/Summer 1978.

Kovacs, K.S., "Miguel Littin's Recurso del método : the aftermath of Allende," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1980.

Le Pennec, Françoise, "Cinéma du Chili: en exil ou sur place," in Cinéma (Paris), February 1983.

Mouesca, J., "El cine chileno en el exilio (1973–1983)," in Cine Cubano (Havana), no. 109, 1984.

"Miguel Littin," in Film Dope (London), September 1986.

Zaoral, Zdenek, "Miguel Littin," in Film a Doba (Prague), March 1987.

Blazeva, T., and G.G. Markes, in Kinoizkustvo (Sofia), April 1987.

Rinaldi, G., "Los naufragos," in Cineforum (Bergamo), June 1994.

Tobin, Y., "Los naufragos,' in Positif (Paris), July/August 1994.

* * *

"Each of my movies corresponds to a moment in Chilean political life." From this manifesto-like stance in his earlier career, Miguel Littin's cinematic concerns have widened geographically but maintained their political orientation. Certainly it is an attitude that has earned him detractors. But it is fair to say that his best work has been provoked by contradictions offered to socialist ideals through the lessons of history. Squaring this circle, or for Littin, seeing how imperialism, dictatorship, and subjugation are self-perpetuating, allows us to trace the fine line in his work between political sentimentality and genuine cinematic ingenuity. El chacal de Nahueltoro courageously addresses the notion of ideology in the true story of an illiterate peasant who murders his common-law wife and her five children. Taking this popular personification of Evil, Littin shows the irony of a peasant who only achieves self-enlightenment at the point of judicial persecution, only becomes literate to sign his death warrant, and only becomes a good Catholic in time to die one. But the film seeks to avoid the perpetuation of bourgeois forms itself: flashbacks culminate at a point midway through the film when the crime is actually committed; the real dialogue of the peasant is used; and handheld camera shots and journalistic techniques simultaneously invoke sensations of authenticity and manipulation.

The film pitched Littin into the leading ranks of Latin American directors, an achievement he followed with La tierra prometida. Again closely historically detailed, it tells the story of a popular revolt that is finally massacred by the army. But it moved to a larger cinematic scope, starring the peasants of the Santa Cruz region, and invoked the ambiguity of folk symbolism in an allegory of the weaknesses in Allende's Popular Unity. Two months after it was made a similar military coup put an end to Allende's government.

After the coup, Littin went to Mexico and looked back on Chile's recent, violent history in Actas de Marusia. This film documents the roots of right-wing domination in an English Mining Company's exploitation of a small Chilean town at the start of the century, ending in torture, hostage-taking, and mass-murder. For some, however, the film was too one-sided, one critic calling it "nothing so much as a Stalinist hymn to the glories of suicidal sacrifice." Nonetheless its ochre-toned intensity gained it an Academy Award nomination as Best Foreign Film.

From here his career took a different turn. The emerging fashion for Latin American "magic realism" in European and American literary tastes saw Littin making a parallel rapprochement with "western" intellectual culture—the previous agent of cultural contamination. El recurso del método , based on a Carpentier novel, was archly thoughtful, quoting from Descartes in its portrayal of an exiled Latin American dictator. But again it detailed Littin's concern with the forms of ideology that condone dictatorship—here in the delusion of subjectivity: "The dictator can seem nice and understandable in his behaviour, but at the same time he reveals the extent to which he himself has been destroyed by the ideology of imperialism. . . . Therefore I didn't want to stress the individual." Mirrors, paintings, and lamps refract the lighting, rendering illumination and identification uncertain: "It is a play of reflections between truths, lies, ambiguities, and from the joining of all these elements, the spectator will be able to draw a conclusion, to become aware of what a dictatorship is." El recurso del método struck the plangent note of the exiled Littin's own political pessimism, a note that was echoed in La viuda de Montiel , which showed the widow of a local tyrant gradually becoming aware of her previous self-delusions. In spite of Garciá Márquez providing the story, the film failed to take off.

But Alsino y el cóndor , taking as its subject a boy's dream of flying, did take off, showing Littin's return to contemporary Latin American realities in the context of Somoza's Nicaragua of 1979. Some saw the film's clear political sympathies as hampering it at the Academy Awards where it was nominated for Best Foreign Film. But the film cinematically transcended its political objectives in a powerful, emotive vision of a country torn by civil war, seen through the eyes of a crippled child. That innocent eye is one Littin tried to capture when he surreptitiously returned to Chile after twelve years in exile to secretly film life under Pinochet. He was disguised as an Uruguayan businessman and covertly directed four film crews. The resulting four-part documentary, Acta General de Chile , is a testament to Littin's flexibility and bravado.

Littin's place in Latin American film history is ensured, for reasons that go beyond the aesthetic. Paradoxically, what has earned him posterity has often cost him aesthetically. Responsiveness to a changing political climate renders him an unpredictable director, but nonetheless bodes well for the future.

—Saul Frampton

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