One Day in September, 28 Years Apart

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Last Thursday evening, the McCormick Screening Room in Humanities Gateway was quiet and empty save for a couple of students. Just after my arrival, a flood of guests came from the reception for Cecilia Cornejo, excited at the prospects of seeing her artisanal film, a screening sponsored by the Latin American Studies program and Illuminations.

Cecilia introduced herself, a Cinema and Media Studies Associate Professor at Carleton College and a graduate of the School of Art Institute of Chicago, whose documentaries revolve around the theme of discomfort, the experience of immigration and a reflexive history, based on her emigration from Chile 21 years ago.

She first showed us “Looking South,” a series of interviews with the Chilean people after Augusto Pinochet’s arrest in London in 1998, before we were treated to the main event: a screening of “I Wonder What You Will Remember of September.”

It was a short film — about a half-hour long — built on a conscious reconstruction of her memory of the events of the 9/11/1973 Chilean coup d’état and the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001; the film worked to create a connection between the similarities of confusion, shock and childhood obliviousness that existed for Cornejo in both events.

Memories of her father’s arrest and her experience in a political reeducation camp dominate the interplay of anxiety and calmness. Stories of the coup were interspersed with footage of Cornejo’s daughter, Gabriella, an innocently naïve child oblivious to the changing world post-9/11. The film ends on a somber note; a sort of reclamation of memory for both tragic days, with “America, not the world, but part of it” painted on a wall and end titles detailing the specifics of the US-backed coup of the Allende government. Víctor Jara’s “The Right to Live in Peace” plays the film out, bringing dimension to a film that had before been devoid of music.

Following the film, a Q&A session discussed Cornejo’s production process and the interpretation of the events chronicled in the film. She described it as “an unresolved trauma” in the reflection of her experience with these events. She was seven during the Chilean coup and celebrated “not having to go to school on that day,” a stark contrast to her parents’ fear, and almost eerily similar to her daughter’s awareness of the 2001 attacks. I remember being just as painfully confused and oblivious in 2001.

The audience expressed their praise of Cornejo’s treatment of memory and discussed the lack of clarity; there was a distinct blurring and slowdown of images, inducing a dream-like state.

“If an image is too clear, you only see that. Without sound, you are forced to imagine.”

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the discussion was about the humor of the film; Cornejo acknowledged us as the first to laugh during a screening. One scene stood out: when Cornejo’s father is released from prison, the paranoia of a military jeep that came by every night to observe him turns into a hilarious coincidence when we find out that the jeep is actually picking up the neighbor’s son-in-law, an officer in the army.

After the Q&A session, we were treated to a small clip of her most recent film, “Song of the Apprentice,” and excerpts from “With the Skateboarders,” a work-in-progress. The audience filed out of the theater room, and I felt satisfied with both Cornejo’s documentaries and the conversations we had about them. The film complemented its historical reflection and it was funny as well as poignant. And that discomfort she mentioned as part of her films’ theme? That was replaced with a feeling of contentment, a personal reflection on my own experience with reconstructing the past.

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