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Olivia Lawrence-Weilmann

Olivia Lawrence-Weilmann is a writer, artist, and activist. In her free time, she enjoys beating her family at gin rummy, playing soccer, and creating delicious vegetarian food. She studies anthropology and Latin American Studies at Mount Holyoke College. She can be reached at olawrenceweilmann (at) gmail (dot) com.

July 11th, 2013 2:20 PM

'Use Cinema as a Weapon': an Interview with Young Chilean Filmmaker Guille Sohrens

Students in Chile have been unhappy with their educational system for at least two decades.  Its structure was designed during the reign of Augusto Pinochet, the notorious dictator who disappeared and tortured  over 40,000 people. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-14584095), and it has not been remodeled since he left office. 

Before Pinochet’s dictatorship, approximately 90 percent of university budgets came from the government, but today that figure is less than 10 percent (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vsVY0T9QBOU).  As the educational system became privatized, the quality of education became segregated along class lines.  Wealthy families can afford to send their children to well-funded, private schools that provide great educations, while low-income students have no choice but to attend under-funded public schools that do not prepare students well.

In 2006, Chilean students demanded a restructuring of their educational system.  Their efforts were met with much political resistance and suppression.  2011 sparked a new wave of protests, known as the “Chilean Spring.”  This past June, students were on the streets once more, demanding fair and just education.

Guille Sohrens, a young filmmaker from Santiago, made a short documentary about the June 2013 student protests called “El desalojo” (The Eviction).

-What got you interested in the protests? 

I have actively participated in the student fight since 2006, when the “Penguin Revolution” erupted in Chile (students are sometimes called “Penguins” because their black and white school uniforms look like penguins). High school students started to demand better public education.  The quality of education is restricted by the economic capacities of each family. For this reason, schools in wealthier areas are considerably better than schools in middle or low class neighborhoods. This educational system was created during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, and subsequent governments have not changed it because of conflicts of economic interests. This unjust restriction of citizen rights initially led me to take part in the movement at a very young age. When I got into college, I co-founded a student federation and started to use my camera as a way to fight back.

-What are the economic conflicts of interest? Who benefits from keeping the educational system the way is currently is?

One of the beneficiaries is the banking system, mainly because of a state endorsed credit system, CAE.  The CAE system allows universities to admit students who cannot pay for their education outright.  The government backs students’ loans, ensuring that there isn’t much risk for the banks.  On paper, this sounds pretty good, because it allows students from lower income households to have access to education.  However, functionally it means that the state takes on the risks while the banks profit.  The loans have extraordinarily high interest rates, which hurts both students and the government.  It is estimated that in 2011 the banks earned about $300,000,000 US dollars.

The other beneficiaries are the owners of private universities.  They capitalized on the opportunity to profit from CAE, using “mirror partnerships,” which exploit legal loopholes to ensure that they make money from students.  In mirror partnerships, student fees are paid to external service companies that are owned by the same people who own the university.  This way, the profit does not officially belong to the university.  Many politicians are in this business including the former education secretary from Sebastian Piñera’s government, Joaquin Lavin, who was on the board of directors of a private university, Universidad del Desarrollo, while he was secretary of education.

Another problem with the CAE is that it creates an illusion that lower-income students can attend top universities in the same way that wealthier students can. While a family with more money can pay for their child’s education without incurring debt, lower income families are stuck with tremendous debt. This restricts the social mobility for students because even when wealthy students and poorer students have similar incomes after finishing university, the fact that one of them still has to pay off loans, denies lower-income students an equal chance economically.

-Can you tell us about the process of making this film? What were some of the challenges you faced trying to document demonstrations and the police as they forcibly removed students?

It was a very fast process. The day before the student eviction, Chile’s President, Sebastián Piñera, ordered the eviction of all educational establishments that were being occupied by students and that would be used a few days later for Chile’s primary presidential elections. The eviction was set for the next day at 3:00 am, a time when it was highly unlikely that the press would be there. I decided to make a record of everything, since the Chilean press couldn’t record inside the school.

This is why the first challenge I faced was to gain the students’ trust so that they would allow me to record the whole process, from planning meetings to the eviction. During the eviction, I had to make myself as unnoticeable as possible, because otherwise, the police would have kicked me out or arrested me. If the school’s Principal, who tried to safeguard the students by watching police and the eviction process, hadn’t been there, I probably would have been detained along with the students.

-Why wouldn’t the Chilean press record inside the school? 

Mainly for two reasons.  Firstly, the students don’t hold very much trust in the press, so they don’t allow the press into their meetings and such.  Secondly, the police restrict the presses’ access.  In Liceo Experimental Manuel de Salas, the officer in charge ordered that no journalist was allowed to enter the eviction site.  This situation has historically led to media manipulation, the criminalization of the student movement, and the portrayal of our students as terrorists.

-How the media has criminalized students?

The media does not cover peaceful protests; they only show the violence and damages that happen in some of them.  Some people think that the media often manipulates facts because the violence they show always seem to happen at the same time: noon when the newscasts start their transmissions.  On the other hand, the independent press reports the side of the violence that the mainstream press doesn’t: policemen who infiltrate protests, dressed up as masked protesters and provoke the damage of public infrastructure.

-How did you choose this particular school to focus on in the film?

The school, Liceo Experimental Manuel de Salas, has been one of the most active establishments in the student movement. Initially, I wanted to record in many schools; however, the combination of the urgency of the moment and the presence of police officers meant that this was the only school we were able to get into. Furthermore, Liceo Experimental Manuel de Salas’ way of fighting evictions is very different than the image that the government wants to portray of the students.  The students’ protest was peaceful, contrary to the way the press and media represent students.

What got cut out? Were there things that resonated with you but didn’t make it into the film?

One of the things I decided to cut out because of technical issues was the lack of protocol from the police. Legally, to enter the schools, you need a permit— signed by the municipality or the Principal, depending on what kind of school it is— that lets police forces go inside.  However, when police came the first time, they had no such permit.  Even with police insisting they be let in, they weren’t allowed to until that document was in their hands.

Four hours later, they came back with an official permit, and that’s what you see in the documentary.  In other schools, police went in anyway, without the permit, which is absolutely illegal and, of course, was not shown in any of the media and press.

-What do you hope your film will do? How do you want audiences to react?

We have been invited to participate in a few local movie festivals.  Our intention, however, is to show the documentary through social media so that it can reach as many people as possible. We want everyone with internet access watching the film rather than just a few people inside a room at a film festival.
I hope that “The Eviction” can create conscience about what is really happening in Chile.  Many people here and in other countries as well, see the news and think the students are committing terrorist acts, when in reality what students want is access to quality education that is not a for-profit institution.

Chile has no mainstream media that directly opposes the government; all televised and written media belongs to the political right wing, something Sebastián Piñera has used in his favor to manipulate public opinion and criminalize the student’s noble fight.  The media is so powerful that often parents of the students are more inclined to believe the media than their own sons and daughters.  Young people who are fighting for a cause that would benefit everyone, not just students, because corruption within the educational system affects the whole country.

-What message do you want people in the United States to hear?

I hope that they can spread the word about the fight that’s taking place here in Chile for our right to have an education. Chile and the US have similar problems when it comes to the way that capitalism deprives people of their rights, leaving essential things like our education, our health, and even our food in the hands of the economically powerful.  I think there’s a worldwide necessity for change, and this is one of the many portraits of the struggle that people go through everywhere in the world. The beauty of these protests is that our kids that are teaching us this.

-Are you still involved in the student movement? Are you planning on making another film about the movement?

I’m in contact with other filmmakers to analyze the possibility of compiling different material they have about the protests in the few last months and transform this into a feature film. Chile is living though an incredible strong process of social change. We have presidential elections coming up in November, so we’re keeping an eye on anything that happens with students and also other social movements. 

-What’s next for you?

I’m currently writing “La isla de los Pingüinos” (Penguin Island) a feature film based on the high school students’ struggles, with the intention of showing the micro-societies that students form during an occupation, using it as a metaphor of the social reality we live in today. We’re planning to start shooting this film sometime next year, and keep using cinema as a weapon to show the reality that students live against what the government wants us to believe.

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