Nae Pasaran's director on the Scots workers who defied Pinochet
Chilean filmmaker Felipe Bustos Sierra tells us about the making of Nae Pasaran, his documentary about a group of Scottish factory workers who defied Augusto Pinochet's fascist dictatorship by refusing to repair his air force's engines
During the closing film of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival – the world premiere of documentary Nae Pasaran – members of the audience burst into spontaneous applause. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about clapping at a festival gala screening, but what makes this applause worth mentioning is that it happened mid-movie. The scene that prompted this reaction was toward the end of the film, and showed footage of a medal ceremony at Glasgow City Chambers in which three men who led East Kilbride’s Rolls-Royce factory's boycott against repairing jet engines owned by General Pinochet’s junta received commendations from Chile’s ambassador.
The response came as quite the surprise to the documentary’s subjects, who were watching in the audience. The film’s director and producer, Felipe Bustos Sierra, tells The Skinny: “I don’t think the guys go to films that often. I was just having a chat with one of them and he asked, ‘Do people do that now, just react to the screening?’ and I said ‘No, not in Scotland.’”
Nae Pasaran tells the amazing story of how a group of trade union workers in East Kilbride grounded the Chilean military junta’s Hawker Hunter jets, and introduces you to a turbulent period that changed Chile’s identity.
Sierra only finished the film on 20 February this year; the GFF gala screening was 4 March, just 12 days later. “We’ve basically been on overdrive for the last couple of months, all the effort has been concentrated on this one screening,” he tells us a few days after the premiere. The reaction has been powerful and has led to numerous articles exploring the political aspects of the film. Sierra is hoping this spotlight will enable them to get the widest distribution possible. “This September is the 45th anniversary of the coup, and it’s the 40th anniversary of the date the engines disappeared and the boycott was ended. So that seems like the perfect time to bring the film out.”
Cliff Notes on Chile’s military coup
Sierra’s film opens with a flurry of archival footage documenting Augusto Pinochet's brutal overthrowing of President Salvador Allende’s progressive socialist government on 11 September 1973. The Edinburgh-based Chilean filmmaker describes this opening as “Cliff Notes on Chile”, and knows that with more time he could have explored the coup further and with more nuance. “It’s a low-budget documentary and we’re aware that at 96 minutes we’re pushing it,” he says. “But we have so much context, so much history. I describe the film as so much broccoli, which you know is good for you and it’s nutritious but it’s not necessarily the kind of stuff you want [to hear], but it needs to be there before you get to the ice cream at the end.”
John Keenan, Robert Somerville and Bob Fulton in Nae Pasaran
This sweet payoff Sierra describes is not just for the audience but also for Bob Fulton, Robert Somerville, Stuart Barrie and John Keenan, the men who led the boycott. “I think the guys thought I’d carry a bias,” says the director. “You know, my father was a Chilean exile, I’ve got my own stake in this: I was hoping to find a good ending, but only if there was one.
“I think the guys were wondering, when I was telling them about the impact of their boycott, if I was basically making myself happy.”
Getting Chile’s side of the story
To remedy this, Sierra went to Chile, conducted interviews, spent five months editing and then brought the results back to show the men in East Kilbride. “It felt like a good idea to start cutting the film from the Chilean side of the story and present that to them to not only act as a refresher before their next interviews but also so they could hear from Chileans of their own generation – people who were there.
“That was very important to the film; we don’t have a historian recapping everything for us,” says Sierra. “It was important that everybody in the film, who had carried their own history for so long without an outlet, would be treated as a personal expert on what they’d lived through. They’ve had to deal with so much archive destruction in Chile, they must rely more than they should on the memories of people.
“This paralleled our approach to the film: these people should be sharing the story and we tried to turn the talking heads into these contrasting conversations. There is clearly a film artifice there, but that’s the only way we could get the guys to hear it from each other.”
Growing up with this story
The story of the coup was part of Sierra’s childhood. “My father was in exile, he had to go into hiding for three months, had to escape with fake papers,” he explains. “That’s a pretty big story to grow up with so close to you. I was being told how the US was a negative force in the world and, as a kid, that didn’t connect with the way that the US was presented culturally through films.
“I remember being sent to bed early and having to sneak out because my parents were going to watch The Battle of Chile, the  Patricio Guzmán documentary, on the telly. I had to watch between the door slats and that’s where I saw the Hawker Hunter jets first coming down over Santiago, the same footage that we start the film with. That’s the thing that made me click [that] this was huge, it was like something out of an action movie. They actually sent planes to bomb their own government! I wanted to know why they would do that. President Allende seemed to be such a positive force, yet they wanted to kill him and went to such lengths to do so.
“As I got older, I felt I needed to live my life and shut this all out because there were no answers. It was all death, torture and disappearance. It was only 20 years ago that I heard a song by Victor Jara, who was a folk singer and theatre director, very involved during the Allende years, who switched from theatre, which was his love, to singing and writing songs because they were immediate. You could turn on the radio and hear it and he resented the fact that people he wanted to reach with his plays couldn’t afford to see them.
"That was my point of entry back into the story of Chile. The whole cultural movement that supported Allende; the filmmakers, the poets, the singers who basically understood that Chile was dealing with absolute poverty and illiteracy, but everyone could hear songs, everyone could see movies cheaply, and that was a way to make people feel represented and get them interested in what was happening in the country.”
Discovering the story of the East Kilbride boycott
As a kid, Sierra would attend Chile Solidarity fundraisers and it is there that he first heard of the boycott in East Kilbride. “It was in the 80s, the boycott had ended long ago, but the story was still being re-told. It stayed with me because it dealt directly with the Hawker Hunters on the day of the coup and, when I was a kid, that for me that was Pinochet’s might; it was irreversible, it was this ugly image and nothing could ever change that.”
In Chile, Sierra went searching for the other side of the story. “If we didn’t find anybody from the Chilean Air Force, I would have to frame the film in a different way because I didn’t want their story to be presented as-is. It has been 40 years, there should be a different perspective on their actions and especially because I’m so close to it I felt that there should be another point of view in the film that was different from the guys in East Kilbride, from the solidarity workers and from me.
“I did a lot of research and in Chile it is very different. In Britain, the National Archives in London are beautifully kept and when something is missing they tell you that it’s missing. In Chile, they had this law when Pinochet left, that anything that was too sensitive could be destroyed. It’s like doing a 2000-piece puzzle with 200 pieces.
“I’d heard of this story that before the boycott the Air Force had these Hawker Hunters they’d already purchased third-hand. They were worried solidarity actions would get in the way so they decided to fly them back themselves and in doing so accomplished this feat of aviation which had never been done before: to fly a plane designed to fly for 90 minutes over the Atlantic.”
Sierra managed to organise an interview with the Air Force Pilot who planned this operation, General Fernando Rojas Vender, who rumour has it was one of the pilots dropping bombs on the Presidential Palace during the coup. “If you look up his name, even back then, he comes up as allegedly – and it’s really important you put allegedly in there – as the second pilot to bomb the Presidential Palace. The fact that he wanted to talk to me was a bit baffling. I did a lot of research: I talked to a lot of journalists who were helping and they were all surprised that he said yes.
“We showed up and I was there with the Chilean crew. We talked about the operation and half way through he just switched and started talking about the coup and that was a bit chilling. It was chilling because when he describes the coup he’s looking down, he’s not looking up at the planes flying over. He seems to be describing it from a pilot’s perspective. Obviously, they are on completely different ends of the conflict but I was surprised by how little he could empathise with Bob and the other guys.”
Chile’s reaction to Nae Pasaran
Nae Pasaran is yet to have its Chilean premiere and Sierra is preparing himself for a different reaction there. “I’m a little bit worried about showing the film in Chile. Things are not settled and they’ve gone back to a right-wing government, which, in the same way as Brexit did here and Trump did in America, seems to have given free-reign to many people to be very overt about their despicable views.
“In Scotland, Nae Pasaran is a heart-warming story about what a few individuals can do. In Chile, we’re bringing a film about how the dictatorship failed on a specific moment that ties directly with their biggest show of strength during the coup. I don’t know what it means exactly but I’m not backing away from it. It’s probably going to be a very different response.
“I have no love for Hawker Hunters and those engines. I understand they are an absolute feat of engineering but I was born with these things being instruments of death. What the boycott did was to basically change the identity of these engines: they were no longer war plane engines, they were a symbol of solidarity then they reverted. They were stolen back to Chile and then we find them rusting in a yard. They were just lying there and I’d spent so long in the Chilean archives seeing how much had been destroyed, how much doesn’t exist, this felt like tangible evidence. I felt a bit of responsibility that we should get the engine and bring it back to be a symbol of solidarity in Scotland, not just with Chile but for internationalism and trade-unionism. It’s one way of reclaiming history; one way of having tangible evidence that is absolutely missing from the story.”
This year Chilean Oscar submission – Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman, the story of a transgender woman being subject to scorn and discrimination after the sudden death of her older boyfriend – is fresh from winning the prize for best foreign film at this year’s Academy Awards. Despite the obvious surface differences, Sierra sees some parallels between his and Lelio’s films. “[A Fantastic Woman] is being marketed as an LGBT film but everything that happens to that woman in the film is what happened to dissidents during dictatorship,” says Sierra. “Lelio’s creating a parallel: people being snatched on the street, being told they shouldn’t be who they are. What we are saying is still being disseminated through other stories. I think if you’re not in control of your story, what power do you have? You can’t think of it in a different way.”
Nae Pasaran is currently on tour across Scotland, with screenings coming up at Eden Court, Inverness (23 Mar); Glasgow Film Theatre (25 Mar); and Filmhouse, Edinburgh (28 Mar). Felipe Bustos Sierra will take part in Q&As after the Glasgow and Edinburgh screenings