BIFF Review: Beyond my Grandfather Allende

A documentary by his granddaughter searches for the Salvador Allende the world never knew.
Salvador Allende is a well known historical figure, but we know little about his private life. In an attempt to learn more about him, his granddaughter shows us a great deal about her family.

On September 11th, 1973, the Chilean armed forces attacked the palace of socialist president Salvador Allende, installing one of the bloodiest dictators of that era of Latin American history. That history, as well as the history of Allende’s political career as the world’s first democratically elected socialist president, is well documented. What remains unknown, however, is the man himself.

Beyond my Grandfather Allende (Allende mi abuelo Allende in Spanish) documents the search by Allende’s granddaughter Marcia Allende for that man. Certain elements of his life are known: his political ambition; his frequent infidelities; his suicide. In this piece, though, Marcia Allende is striving to find the grandfather she never knew. As she interviews family members and friends of the former president, the camera lingers as, one by one, those who knew and loved the man ask, “Can we stop?” In fact, “interview” may not be the best word; the filmmaker is on camera, conversing with her mother, her sister, cousins, and, most importantly, her grandmother.

The most compelling aspect of this film is the family. Salvador Allende could be anyone who left behind a grieving family. Almost all of the Allendes have put up walls, avoiding the subject of their patriarch and the details of his death for nearly forty years. When Marcia Allende starts digging through their memories, the discomfort is visible on their faces. Her grandmother, clearly in poor health, is being asked to reminisce about the most painful time of her life and beyond, to her life with Salvador, a life which included her husband’s various affairs. Her reluctance to dive into her past, along with her daughters’ protection of her, seems to stall the progress of the entire project. Only after her death do the daughters open up, sitting down together to look at old photos, even visiting the family’s former beach house.

Those photos are among the film’s biggest stars. All of the Allende family photo albums were stolen or destroyed during the coup, and those still in the family’s possession were tucked away in suitcases and drawers. Marcia Allende’s search for her grandfather brought those photos out of storage and onto the screen. We see him holding his grandchildren, or running at the beach, or putting on a play with friends, and we see glimpses of the man his granddaughter feels she has lost. Two photos, a sequence in which he reaches for and then embraces his daughter Tati, who committed suicide four years after her father, serve as an emotional crux of the film. The filmmaker has them framed, and, in a gesture that can be seen as either heartwarming or cruel, shows them to her grandmother. The result is, like the rest of the film, less compelling than intended.

As the film unfolded to reveal bits and pieces of Salvador Allende, the story of the Allende family was laid bare for the world to see. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for Marcia Allende to convince these people to talk on camera. One by one, they say “We don’t talk about it.” As she chips away at that reluctance, we see glimpses of how the cousins relate, of the relationship between Marcia and her mother, and of the entire family’s deep respect for their grandmother. It would be simple for many to draw comparisons to their own family, especially if there is some tragedy lurking in the past. A true picture of Allende’s private life is perhaps impossible to find, but Beyond my Grandfather Allende shows how his family has dealt with the man who defines them.



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