Chilean Chronicles, Part 64: Los 80 Helps Chile Confront Its Past

There are many ways to confront a nation’s painful past.

With official dates of remembrances and honoring those who have died.

With statues and other types of memorials, like the one erected in honor of assassinated Chilean Senator Jaime Guzman that Dunreith and I passed Sunday during our walk through the neighborhood of Las Condes.

Or with weighty tomes produced by prominent writers like Nobel Prize winning-author Gunter Grass’ who penned A Broad Field, a novel about German reunification.

These methods each have their merits, and there are others that arguably have a more widespread impact.

Like Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin, a film about the waning days of the Communist era. The movie, which rapidly attained cult status in Germany, uses humor from start to finish as it evokes the nostalgia many East Germans felt for certain aspects of life under the regime.

Here in Chile, Andres Wood takes the nation back to the dark days of the Pinochet dictatorship through the lense of a single family in the series, “Los 80,” or “The 80s.”

Dunreith and I just finished watching the first season-she’s shifted to make the show, rather than the original version of “Ugly Betty”, one of her major Spanish-language learning tools-and it’s riveting stuff.

Wood was born in 1965, and came of age during this turbulent era. His effort to represent the period with meticulous fidelity is one of the show’s central commitments. Actual footage from television shows like the omnipresent Mario Kreutzberger, better known as Don Francisco, appear in every episode. So, too, does music from the period like “Eres,” which also appeared in Sebastian Lelio’s whimsical movie, “Gloria.” The radio program, the expressions, the method of dress, and, I am sure, many other elements to which I am not attuned, place the viewer in 1982 as the show opens, and then moves through the decade in subsequent seasons.

Wood trains his camera on the Herreras, a middle-class family consisting of the happily married Juan and Ana, their teenage children Claudia and Martin, and their younger boy Felix. At the beginning of the first season, life is humming along in a comfortable and predictable rhythm.

Juan is a respected worker at the factory where he’s been employed for many years. Ana tends the home with loving care. Claudia and Martin are studying to pursue their dreams of attending medical and aviation school, respectively. Everyone dotes on Felix.

After receiving a promotion and the higher salary that goes with it, Juan stretches and buys a color television, much to the delight of the other family members. But then he’s laid off along with all of the other workers during the recession that hit the nation extraordinarily hard.

Part of the skill and appeal of Wood’s show is the way he shows the impact of larger social forces and events on the family-dear friend and wise soul Ava Kadishson Schieber has talked before about always knowing that she was a pawn in the chessboard of life-without being too heavy-handed.

Juan’s inability to provide for his family prompts Ana to seek work of her own-a decision that provokes fierce resistance from her unemployed husband. Wood depicts Juan’s shame and helplessness at being unable to fulfill what he sees as his male responsibilities without announcing, “I’m looking at gender attitudes, people.”

One of the season’s more touching moments comes when Juan starts crying while talking to his father-in-law, who during his visit for Fiestas Patrias is insisting on having meat that Juan cannot afford.

There are many such instances during the show. They work because of the deep love that the family members feel for each other, even as the peaceful veneer they have managed to maintain is being ripped asunder by the events that are starting to overtake the nation. Juan’s insistence that “We don’t talk about money or politics” at the dinner table becomes harder to sustain as Martin joins the Air Force and Claudia finds herself drawn into politics at the University of Chile.

This attitude, as Miguel Huerta, Matias Torre, and Macarena Rodriguez discussed on Friday night, is at once a coping mechanism, a means to not confront the extent of the brutality that was occurring and a response to an environment in which you could be taken away for no reason, at any time.

In one of the season’s darker episodes, Juan experiences this terror when he speaks up for a more politically active co-worker who is being beaten relentlessly by police officers while Juan is forced to sit in the back seat of the police car.

At the same time, Wood also succeeds in creating a feeling of community that permeates the show. Everyone shops at the local store run by a fervent Pincohetista who nevertheless displays concern for Ana when Claudia is detained after a protest. Martin’s fumbling first courtship, Felix’s hesitation to dance the cueca and failure to convert a penalty, and Claudia’s conversations with her mother about sex all are part of family life that occur in countries across the planet.

This interspersing of the ordinary concerns of family life with the increasingly ruptured tranquility in which they have been living gives the show additional potency. We care about the characters because we can relate to them, even as we understand the ways in which their lives are slowly, but steadily, being upended.

This is not to say that “Los 80” is without blemishes.

The issues in the episodes occasionally resolve too neatly in a single hour. (Items introduced in the beginning of an episode nearly always factor in at the end.) Several of the key characters are one-dimensional, and thus veer close at times to appearing like vehicles for Wood’s clear anti-dictatorship perspective or his storytelling objectives.

These are but small points, though, in a potent, provocative and stimulating series that we’ll continue to watch with enthusiasm.

Chileans have been doing the same.

Dunreith reported that her bringing up the show during the English conversation class we are teaching at UDP’s American Corner sparked a lively and vigorous debate about life during the dictatorship.
Conversations like these reached unprecedented levels this month, which contained the fortieth anniversary of the Pinochet coup.

We’ll start Season Two tomorrow.

The healing throughout the country is ongoing.

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