I was eight years old on 11 September 1973, the day General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Chile’s elected government.
Of 40 children in my class, at least 15 lived in the shantytowns along the banks of the Mapocho River, right near my school.
Our headmaster Father Whelan was a US priest with a progressive outlook. He was responsible for including those children in the educational system.
It was an enriching experience — turbulent and cruel at times, but wonderful as well. It was full of contradictions, just like life in the rest of the country then.
This was the experience that I based the film Machuca on. The film is very autobiographical.
In the film some boys from the shantytown are given scholarships to a private school, so children with everything are taught alongside those with nothing.
I made the characters older than I was at the time — two boys, both 11, but from completely different lives. The film looks at their relationship and their social differences as much as it looks at the coup.
The headmaster in the film, Father MacEnroe, is based on the real Father Whelan. He was an idealist and not pragmatic, but he was an authentic hero, just as the left wing president Salvador Allende was.
In 1973 the CIA backed a military coup which put General Pinochet in power. Allende was the democratically elected president at the time.
It was a short period of time that left its mark on us all, both rich and poor. Two worlds were brought together that had always been completely separate throughout the entire history of Chile.
It seemed to me that it was absolutely essential to make this film, because no one had examined the loss of democracy in Chile from this perspective before.
Here, it is the children who look at the world, without judging what they see. They witness the events that took place.
And in that sense, the narration is not based on political or even social affiliations. They are all human beings, with strengths and weaknesses.
On the other hand, it is the first film about this period made by a director who lived through the dictatorship in Chile and, in addition, by the first Chilean director of my generation to deal with this subject. That is not important in and of itself, but I think it opens up the chance to look at those intense years from a new point of view.
In Machuca, I have addressed that period with melancholy, but also with enthusiasm — the enthusiasm of two 11 year old boys who discover inner and outer worlds where they can finally be themselves.
We experience everything through their eyes. It is they who give us the fragmented information we receive about the educational experiment, their families and the country.
Undoubtedly, it was an ambitious project, not because of all that I wanted to address, but because I had to be very clear about where this story’s limits were. The worst sin would have been trying to tell it all.
Because we limited ourselves to only seeing what the children see, we had to look at ways to portray the politics — what was happening. Until the politics begins to impact on the boys directly what we see is the graffiti on the walls. The signs are there, but it is not until later that they impact upon you fully.
There is a lot of innocence in the film. The coup in 1973 shaped everything in Chile. But I have happy memories from that time as well.
The response to the film in Chile has been great. I didn’t think it would be. There is this idea that people can’t discuss what happened.
It has started a lot of big political discussions. In the newspapers it has jumped from the culture pages to the editorials to the letters pages.
There is still this massive divide in Chile between rich and poor.
Machuca is released on Friday 6 May