In April of 1962 Dutch documentary filmmaker, Joris Ivens visited the Cineteca Universitaria of Santiago (Chile) for a three-month teaching period. Sergio Bravo, director of the affiliated Instituto Cine Experimental proposed a plan to Ivens to make a film together with Chilean film students. This would become Valparaíso (1963), a documentary focusing on the eponymous coastal city, Chile’s largest sea-port, situated ca. 70 km west of the nation’s capital Santiago. On Valparaíso, Ivens wrote in November of 1962: “Valparaiso is a city, a port where the ordinary and extraordinary, the common and uncommon, exist side by side as an everyday experience… The ocean is present in the hills of the city, and at the water’s edge one senses the hills. [It’s] a poverty-stricken city. Also a city with a dramatic history: pirates pillaged the city, earthquakes, tidal waves, tempestuous storms, all-consuming fires, bombardments.” This juxtaposition of sea and land, past and present, ordinary and extraordinary, rich and poor, high and low appealed to the artist in Ivens, who accepted the assignment.
Shortly before principal photography began on November 12th 1962, the crew was supplemented by cameraman Georges Strouvé, as Ivens worried that the students’ inexperience might mar the quality of the finished film. Not entirely without reason: although Valparaíso convinces as a whole, certain scenes tend to drag and the films visual narrative is sometimes jarring, lacking the smooth thematic transitions that mark Ivens’ best films. In spite of this the film’s commentary, written by Chris Marker and spoken by Roger Pigaut, is effective in tying the film together into a narrative whole. And Valparaíso has managed to captivate audiences, critics and film scholars alike throughout the years, as it was included in the 2014 listing of ‘Greatest Documentaries of All Time’ by leading film magazine Sight & Sound.
Strouvé, Ivens and his students began filming in Valparaíso’s harbour, the city’s main source of income and economic activity. This is shown in scenes in which cargo is being loaded and unloaded from the numerous ships that dock at the harbour and then transported to various places throughout the city. The port is also the first aspect of Valparaíso that seafaring visitors are greeted by, as Germaine Montero’s singing of the sea shanty: ‘Nous irons à Valparaíso’ (‘We are going to Valparaíso’) serves to remind us. After this brief introduction Ivens films scenes that focus on the two different parts that make up Valparaíso: the relatively affluent city surrounding the bay and harbour, and the ramshackle villages on the forty-two hills surrounding the city. The villages on top of the hills are the most destitute, as they are furthest removed from the city’s economic lifeline that is the harbour. Because of this distance to the harbour and the logistical problem that the transport up the hills poses, the villages are thoroughly lacking in foodstuffs, goods and sundries. For the supply of these and other things, they rely heavily on Soviet-styled committees (called junta’s) that govern various aspects of municipal life, including a steady water-, food- and gas supply, a telephone service, medical aid and education.
Valparaíso’s most prominent geographical feature, the height differences between the villages, is overcome every day by the city’s citizens through an elaborate network of stairs and cable cars. The poet Pablo Neruda, who lived in Valparaíso, said of these flights of stairs: “Whoever travels all of them up and down, travels around the world.” Clever market vendors have set up shop along the many flights of stairs, and the many cable cars serve not only as modes of transportation, but also as meeting places for citizens and visitors alike. Both stairs and cable cars serve as nodes in Valparaíso’s social life, as do the many bars and cafes where the young people gather to drink and dance.
In images of monuments, buildings and institutions such as the Bank of England, Alliance Française and triumphal arches that commemorate sea battles and distinguished mariners, Ivens refers to Valparaíso’s occupation by England, Spain and France. The city’s close connection to the ocean and maritime history is also present in the triangular-shaped houses, formed like the bow of a ship. And traces of Spanish, British and French architecture can still be found in many of Valparaíso’s buildings.
Pirates such as Joris Spilbergen have ransacked the coastal city in the past – a fact that is visualised in a staged scene where a bar brawl erupts in a violent, kaleidoscopic burst of bright red (marking the transition from monochrome to colour in the film), and images of fires, murder and pillaging.
In Valparaíso, Ivens presents a vision of the city that is encompassing, enthralling and reminiscent of the paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569), also a source of inspiration for The Seine meets Paris (1957). Whereas Brueghel focused on Dutch landscapes and peasant life shortly after the Middle Ages, Ivens focuses on the ordinary, unassuming lives of Valparaíso’s citizens. And the modest and courageous way they face the everyday challenges that the regions geography, economy and climate confront them with.
Valparaíso’s main thread is Man’s continuing struggle to survive in even the harshest of conditions, in past and present. In spite of the ongoing battle against Nature – the unrelenting wind blowing over the city, the toilsome scaling of the many dusty hills, the lack of fresh drinking water, the hot sting of the sun, tidal waves, earthquakes, the ever-present danger of fire consuming the largely wooden villages – to Valparaíso’s citizens the city remains true to its name: Val-Paraïso = the Valley of Paradise.