The "Chilean building" in Havana (Magic Lantern)

Directed by Macarena Aguiló
Produced by Aguiló & Juan Manuel Egaña
Written by Aguiló & Susana Foxley
Released by Magic Lantern
Spanish with English subtitles
Chile/France/Cuba/The Netherlands. 99 min. Not rated

As courts in Chile still deal with the ruthlessness of the military dictatorship that controlled the country from the 1970s to the 1990s, the sacrifices of those who fought against it are coming to light as well. The Chilean Building engrossingly goes past testimony of terror, prison, torture, and kidnapping to reveal how the dedicated followers of deposed Socialist President Salvador Allende worked equally hard to protect their children by creating a utopian home away from home where their children could grow up safe and socialist.

Director Macarena Aguiló knows their story first hand because her parents were activists in the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), and she was sent abroad in an unusual exile, first to France, then to Cuba. She interviews her parents and their cohorts about the difficult decision they made in service to the larger cause of political organizing. The children ranged from toddlers to preteens; the director says that she was one of the oldest. She talks to several of the “social siblings” she lived with and the activists who chose to best serve the cause as “social parents” in what they called Project Home.

With funds from supporters in Belgium, 20 adults and 60 children first moved into an old school building outside Paris in 1976, where the kids bunked in dorms and freely roamed a backyard woods. In what seemed like a year-round summer camp, including required letter writing to their parents, their sense of a “magical place” eased the loss of family they were already beginning to forget.

The whole group flew to Havana more than a year later, occupying an apartment building that had earlier been a refuge for Uruguayan exiles. Their neighbors still call it “the Chilean building” and bemusedly recall the unusual sight of male child caregivers: “Your men worked around the house—we envied that!” (And there’s a photo of a man holding a baby bottle to prove it.) Ironically, the comrades organized the kids like soldiers with a regimented schedule for house cleaning, weeding, and carpentry, though one of the “mothers” adds the perspective of the free love atmosphere among the adults when she moves into a guy’s room.

The former “social siblings,” now adults, unbox their diaries and stacks of well-thumbed correspondence that the movement went to great lengths to facilitate to keep the bonds of communication open. Letters were addressed in coded names, laboriously microfilmed, smuggled out of Chile, copied, and hand delivered. The former exiles still grapple with the years of distance, including some discovering much later that they had new siblings back home. However, the home’s emphasis on trying to maintain family ties is striking. Tearful biological parents, including the director’s father, speak for the first time about the years of separation: “You can only rebuild so much. You’ll always be empty.”

Their guardians encouraged the children to express their feelings through the arts. Crediting this nurturing of his talent, Néstor Pérez turns these drawings into lovely animation that capture the children’s eye view of their environment and give the film additional visual variety. His images become particularly poignant, imaginatively illustrating when the caregivers had to tell a child “They killed your daddy.” The whole building seems to cry in the tropical rain.

The youth were happily oblivious that their home schooling lacked academic subjects, like math, until they took placement tests at Cuban schools. Once they started spending their weekdays at a boarding school, their relationship attenuated with their “social parents,” who suffered from acute empty nest syndrome and lack of purpose, an alienation they all now seem to regret. In addition to a lack of clear identification of all the interviewees, their apparent isolation or separation from Cuban society, politics or culture is not explained. Smuggled video tapes were evidently their only source of news about the continuing dire events back home.

While there is much that is similar in the pattern of this story as has been seen in documentaries or based-on-real-lives features about children who grew up in communal environments (on a kibbutz, in wartime hiding, or in hippie squats), these participants thoughtfully and in highly personal terms debate the choices they made. Aguiló’s film is a heartfelt tribute to their commitment.