The Trace of the Feminine in Chilean Silent Era
By Mónica Villarroel
Translated by José Miguel Palacios
In Chile, the presence of the feminine world was prominent both in the film chronicles of the silent era and in censorship. It was a common practice for exhibitors to invite the press and local elites to the first screenings, including authorities and ladies and gentlemen of high society, as recounted in numerous publications. Lucila Azagra, in a chronicle titled “Los gustos del público” [The Tastes of Audiences], referred to the heterogeneity of preferences that film spectators had toward 1918, distinguishing three groups: “el [público] de los que en las obras buscan ideas, el de los que buscan pasión, y finalmente el de los que al arte le piden acción o movimiento” [the audience that looks for ideas in the works, the one that looks for passion, and finally, the one that demands action and movement from art]. The first group is the most reduced and was formed by thinkers, sociologists, and men of literature. The second group was formed mainly by women; and the third one, the largest, “el grueso del público” [the majority of viewers], was formed by “las gentes vulgares de todas las edades y condiciones, por los obreros, por los estudiantes, por los agricultores, por los comerciantes, por los empleados de oficina, por los industriales y, en general, por todas aquellas personas de alta o baja cuna que no han logrado intelectualizarse lo bastante” (…) [the vulgar peoples of all ages and conditions, by workers, students, farmers, businessmen, office employees, industrial workers, and in general, by all those who, whether high or low class, have not been cultured enough], according to the La Semana Cinematográfica (“Editorial” n.p.). I highlight here the existence of a woman chronicler and the explicit reference to gender as a way to classify spectators.
On another hand, one of the early manifestations of censorship was the one exercised by the Liga de Damas Chilenas [Chilean Ladies League], an organization established in Santiago on July 10, 1912, whose first task was to “combatir la licencia de los espectáculos y pronto organizó una Comisión de Censura Teatral compuesta de señoras y caballeros de alto prestigio social y de reconocida ilustración y experiencia” [dispute the licensing of spectacles. Soon it organized a Commission of Theatre Censorship formed by ladies and gentlemen of high social prestige and recognized culture and experience], according to El Eco de La Liga de Damas Chilenas (1915, 2). The League, supported by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, realized a systematic campaign in its newspaper, El Eco de la Liga de Damas [The Echo of the Ladies League], later called La Cruzada [The Crusade]. Amalia Errázuriz de Subercaseaux was designated president. Her goal was to censor those works deemed immoral in Santiago and nationally. The act of censorship was exercised by the Committee of Censorship, which evaluated theater and film productions. Three categories were established, first in relation to theater, but they were later applied to cinema as well: “buenas o aceptables para niñas; regulares o aceptables solo para señoras y malas e inconvenientes para unas y otras” [good or acceptable for girls, regular or acceptable only for married women, and bad and inconvenient for both], according to El Eco de La Liga de Damas Chilenas (1915, 2).
The League watched over the cinema theaters, especially those frequented by the elite of Santiago: the Royal (or Kinora) and the Unión Central. Besides direct censorship, they published texts that condemned cinema. In June 1917, for instance, they reprinted an article from El Mercurio that warned the reader about the dangers of cinema, stressing how inconvenient it is for women and children to see films.
On the other hand, local production was small if compared to the abundance of foreign films on national screens. Commissioned works were a common practice, and so was the alternation of fiction and documentary by production companies that were equally devoted to both modes. Family companies and the arrival of immigrant technicians marked the realization of local productions, from the Lumière cameramen to the Italian Salvador Giambastiani Dall’Pogetto, with a special predominance of French technicians. Giambastiani founded the Chile Film Co. (also cited as Giambastiani Film), whose first production was, in 1917, La agonía de Arauco o el olvido de los muertos [The Agony of Arauco or the Forgetting of the Dead], directed by his wife Gabriela von Bussenius Vega, sister of the cameraman Gustavo von Bussenius, who worked with the Italian. When Giambastiani died Gustavo and Gabriela took over the company.
I also highlight Rosario Films, a company that produced two of the few films directed by women, Malditas sean las mujeres [Damned be women] (1925) and La envenenadora [The Poisoner] (1929), both by Rosario Rodríguez de la Serna.
It is worth mentioning that in Chilean fiction film, melodrama stands out as the main genre. Nonetheless, the films’ scarcity should also be noted. The aesthetics were realist and naturalist, with some stories based on national heroes where a stereotyped criollismo anchored in nationalism was dominant, a tendency that coexists with cosmopolitan desires manifested mainly in documentary. As of now, eighty-two fiction films and two animated works are known to have been produced between 1910 and 1934, of which only three complete features are extant: El húsar de la muerte, 1925; Canta y no llores, corazón, 1925; and El Leopardo, 1927, as well as fragments from Vergüenza (1925) and Manuel Rodríguez, the first fiction film, dated on 1910. Out of all these productions, four were made by women directors Gabriela von Bussenius Vega, Rosario Rodríguez de la Serna, and Alicia Armstrong de Vicuña.
It should be noted too that the construction of the nation in documentary images of Chilean silent cinema alludes to an aesthetic associated with the oligarchy. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the emphasis is on the display of the lives of aristocrats, military, civilian and religious authorities, with their quotidian rites, parties, and social events. The learning of French, first, and English, secondly, constituted an element of social distinction between the elites and the emergent middle classes in Chile. This was the case of writers such as Inés Echeverría, Iris, who published in French. Likewise, Paris was the main reference for the elite, as the model of modern metropolis and avant-garde. Women fashion from Europe can be seen in the few documentary images that have survived, even though the presence of women in views and actualities is rare.
Bongers, Wolfgang, María José Torrealba and Ximena Vergara, eds. Archivos i letrados. Escritos sobre cine en Chile: 1908-1940. Santiago: Cuarto Propio, 2011.
El Eco de La Liga de Damas Chilenas vol. 3, no. 57 (1 January 1915): 2.
Jara Donoso, Eliana. Cine mudo chileno. Santiago: Self-published, 1994.
“Editorial.” La Semana Cinematográfica 2 (16 May 1918): n.p.
Vicuña, Manuel. La belle époque chilena: alta sociedad y mujeres de élite en el cambio de siglo. Santiago: Editorial Catalonia, 2010.
Villarroel, Mónica. “El mapa del cine temprano en Chile: hacia una configuración del asombro en el contexto latinoamericano.” Revista Aisthesis 52 (2012): 9-30.