Picturing Ghosts

Memories, Traces and Prophesies of Rebellion in Postdictatorship Chilean Film

by Struan Gray (Author)
©2022 Monographs X, 240 Pages
Series: Cultural Memories, Volume 17


How can the afterlives of anticapitalist and antidictatorship resistance enliven contemporary imaginaries of social justice? Where can the legacies of authoritarianism be spatially located and challenged? And what roles can film play in reckoning with these spectral inheritances?
Picturing Ghosts addresses these questions in relation to postdictatorship Chile, a country that has become a nodal point in global geopolitical narratives about the obsolescence of socialism, the birth of neoliberalism and «the end of history». Exploring how the Chilean «transition to democracy» has been narrated in film, the book focuses on stories of haunting and rebellion that unsettle hegemonic temporalities and frameworks of memory. Engaging with the idea of haunting as a trope, a conceptual metaphor and a structure of feeling, it considers different approaches to reckoning with the present past as an emancipatory presence – a multiplicity of unfinished projects and unanswered questions that the cultural imaginary of late capitalism hastens to smooth over.
Through a cartographic approach to analysis, this study looks beyond established landscapes of memorialisation in Chile, encountering rebellious subjects and stories in houses and haciendas, poblaciones, the presidential palace, the Atacama Desert, shopping malls, public schools and university campuses. In doing so, it contributes to an emerging field of research that problematises the dominant spatial and temporal imaginaries of «post-conflict» transitions, striving to construct more inclusive and transformative conceptions of truth, justice and emancipation.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Behind the Neoclassical Façade: The Phantoms and Spectres of La Moneda Palace
  • Chapter 2 Shipwrecked in the 1990s
  • Chapter 3 The Late Transition: An Expanded Field of Haunting and Disappearance
  • Chapter 4 Seeds, Sparks and Shadows in the Atacama Desert
  • Conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Filmography
  • Index
  • Series index

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This book is born of many years of conversations, some actual, some imagined. Many took place as a doctoral student at the University of Brighton, sat in a cramped office with my supervisors, Graham Dawson, Victoria Margree and Thomas Carter. It was in dialogue with these three scholars, each working in different disciplines, that my nebulous thoughts about ghosts and space and time and transition started to coalesce into a distinct project. Their attentive readings sharpened my arguments and unsettled my conclusions at every stage.

Other conversations took place in an ongoing reading group, affectionately named ‘complex temporalities’, composed for the most part of doctoral students in Brighton’s Centre for Memory, Narrative and Histories. This informal interdisciplinary space, barely visible to the institution in which it is based, has had a profound impact on my thinking about the politics of time and memory, and has strengthened by belief in the importance of friendship, collaboration and mutual support in the research process. My thanks go to Fearghus Roulston, Andrea García González, Kate Newby, Hélène Marie Abiraad, Garikoitz Gómez Alfaro, Jessica Matteo, Helen Dixon, Melina Sadiković, Kasia Tomasiewicz, Tim Huzar, Vanessa Tautter, Ian Cantoni, Kristin O’Donnell, Áine McKenny and everyone else who has made the reading group such a happy and inspiring space.

Various readers of have offered valuable comments and guidance along the way, as examiners, reviewers, collaborators and friends. Among them, I would like to thank Phillipa Page, Aris Mousoutzanis, Anthony Leaker, Daniel Willis, César Barros, Darren Newbury, Louise Purbrick and Douglas McNaughton. I am particularly grateful to Iñaki Garcia-Blanco, who first nurtured the belief that I could do this.

This book is for my parents, Kim and Stuart, from whom I still have much to learn about landscape. And for Giulia, who has read and re-read every draft, and has loved and supported me throughout.

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I park in front of the locked gates of Chacabuco. It is 18 September, Chile’s Independence Day, which perhaps is not the best time to visit a disused nitrate mine in the Atacama Desert. I look for a side entrance, but the lingering possibility of unexploded mines puts me off the idea. A handwritten sign on the gate says ‘back in a bit’, though I imagine the caretaker is enjoying the national holiday far from the silence and solitude of the desert. After twenty minutes of waiting, a car arrives and two German tourists get out. They, like me, have been drawn to the mine for the mix of histories it contains. Founded by a British corporation in 1924, Chacabuco was a mining town for fourteen years, providing European nations with powdered fertiliser, and a key ingredient in the production of explosives (Vilches 2011). The site, however, is better known as a concentration camp where the military regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet detained around 1,800 political prisoners in 1974. After posing for a photograph, the German tourists leave, but soon after the dust from their car settles, another vehicle arrives. This time, two elderly Chilean men step out. They are clearly disappointed by the locked gates. We are over 100 km from the nearest settlement, so only the most determined of visitors make their way here. They engage me in conversation, ask me if I know the history of the place and tell me that a friend of theirs served as a conscript in the camp, guarding over the prisoners. ‘Bad things happened here,’ says one of the men, and we all nod in silence. They give the gates a doubtful nudge, then bid me farewell and drive back to the highway.

I see no other option than to climb over the perimeter wall, which proves easier than expected. Just inside the entrance, a recently erected sign announces ‘[a]‌ country’s heritage [patrimonio] is part of its wealth [riqueza]’. Another says ‘[t]hese ruins represent our history’. One describes the daily lives of mine workers, while another focuses on political prisoners. The latter states ‘[t]hese prisoners gave new life to this place, creating an organized detention camp, with a council of elders, school, library, churches, ←1 | 2→amateur theatre, health centre’; a message that focuses on the solidarity and resilience of the prisoners, as opposed to the brutality of those that imprisoned them. The buildings themselves are decrepit shells of compacted mud and corrugated iron. Traces of murals and graffiti remain, though to my untrained eye it is unclear to which epoch they belong.

This is my first trip to Chacabuco, but I have been here many times before. As I walk, I am accompanied by images from films, and the characters they portray. I see the former caretaker of the site, interviewed in La Sombra de Don Roberto (‘The Shadow of Don Roberto’ 2007), who heard voices whispering from the walls as he went about his work. I look to the cloudless sky, following the gaze of a political prisoner who formed an astronomy club during his detention, and later told his story to the camera of Patricio Guzmán in Nostalgia de la Luz (‘Nostalgia for the Light’ 2010). This most solitary of places is teeming with voices, some of which echo incoherently from the past, while others promise to be ‘back in a bit’. It is a place of encounter between the living, the dead and the disappeared, but not in the linear sense generally implied by the concept of heritage. The ghosts that speak from this place demand to be reckoned with, but what that might entail is unclear.

I begin at Chacabuco because it raises several of the questions that haunt this book as a whole. First, what does it mean for a British academic to be drawn to a past that is not their own? Unlike the Chilean men who visited the site, I have no obvious connection with the Chilean dictatorship, and despite having lived and worked in Chile, I still feel like an ‘outsider’ looking in. Second, are ghosts conjured, or ever present? Films and literature about Chacabuco might ‘emplace’ memories within it, but do those texts also respond to something that lingers in-place, complicating the act of representation? Finally, do different stories of injustice compete for visibility, or can they develop renewed significance when placed in dialogue? Can the exploitation of mine workers during the Chilean nitrate boom be read in relation to the violence of the Pinochet regime, or does this risk collapsing two historically distinct epochs? These questions exemplify the productive problems that can emerge when considering the multiple histories and temporalities of place, when one starts to think seriously about ghosts.

←2 | 3→

This book explores how the Chilean ‘transition to democracy’ has been narrated in film, focusing on the imaginative afterlives of anticapitalist and antidictatorship resistance. Specifically, I analyse documentary and fiction films that reckon with the experience of haunting, a shared ‘structure of feeling’ that signals the enduring presence of emancipatory pasts that have been deemed lost, or obsolete. In this respect I do not focus on narratives about the past, as a moment in historical time. Rather, I explore what happens when the past persists, or re-emerges in the present, as images, promises, prophesies, ghosts, visions and affective atmospheres. Through my analyses, I ask how narrative engagements with the present past in film give form to residual and emergent imaginaries of truth and justice. These imaginaries might include the political projects of los desaparecidos – political prisoners who were ‘disappeared’ by the Pinochet regime between 1973 and 1990 – but also of the ‘social disappeared’ (Moffatt 1999), marginalised groups such as the urban poor and the indigenous Mapuche community, whose struggles sit uneasily with dominant left-wing conceptions of emancipation. Crucially, I ask how we might cultivate a hospitable orientation towards historically marginalised ideas, groups and ways of life, without assimilating them into the hegemonic logics of the present. Haunting entails reckoning with the socially transformative dimensions of the present past as a radical heritage, but it also demands reflection on the ways in which different subjects are implicated in ongoing processes of disappearance, appropriation and marginalisation.

My work forms part of a growing body of scholarship that challenges a tendency in ‘postdictatorship’ and ‘post-conflict’ literature to characterise the present past as primarily traumatic or repressive (Richard 2004; Draper 2012; Sosa 2014b; Blejmar 2016). The affective landscape portrayed by the films I analyse includes nostalgia, fear, rage, inertia and impatience, often underpinned by an urgent desire for social transformation. By critically interrogating these emotions, I challenge prevalent transitional discourses about the importance of working through or overcoming the ‘dark past’ and ask instead how the past can productively inhabit contemporary imaginaries of social and political change. This task involves the interrogation of a broader physical landscape of dictatorship memory than is often acknowledged, including schools, shanty towns and shopping malls. It ←3 | 4→also demands critical reflection on the politics of time and temporality, recognising the ways linear chronological temporality can be mobilised to disappear and delegitimise certain groups and ideas. Crucially my focus contests and moves away from the normative frameworks of reconciliation and democratisation consistently offered by the field of transitional justice, an area that, in seeking to ‘overcome’ traumatic pasts, too often denies a continuity of injustice.


X, 240
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (February)
Haunting and cultural memory The politics of time Postdictatorship Chilean film Chile Struan Gray Picturing Ghosts
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. X, 240 pp., 9 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Struan Gray (Author)

Struan Gray is a lecturer in the School of Film and Television at Falmouth University. He completed his doctoral studies at the Centre for Memory, Narrative and Histories, University of Brighton, and has been a visiting fellow at the Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, University of London. His research engages with debates about representation, haunting and the politics of time in «post-conflict» and postdictatorship societies.


Title: Picturing Ghosts
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252 pages