‘Many small people, in small places, doing small things, can change the world’, said the late Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano. In his tremendously powerful and moving film Nae Pasaran (Chile, 2018), Felipe Bustos Sierra shows how just a handful of Scottish workers and trade unionists, in an East Kilbride Rolls Royce factory, did small things that changed political events in a long and narrow South American country on the other side of the world.
On 11 September 1973, Chile’s ‘democratic road to socialism’ came to a violent end with the death of the constitutionally-elected president, Salvador Allende, in a US-backed coup that installed the brutal dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Immediately, Allende supporters, trade unionists, the working-classes and shanty-town poor were redefined as ‘subversives’, ‘terrorists’ and ‘enemies’ to be eradicated. Thousands were rounded up for detention, to be held without trial, tortured and killed in improvised concentration camps. In a country of 10 million inhabitants (in 1973), academic Elizabeth Lira writes, it is estimated that 2,000 were killed, 1,200 ‘disappeared’ (their bodies likely thrown from planes into the sea), 200,000 forced into exile, and 50,000 tortured. Actual figures are probably far higher.
In 1974, Avon engines from British-built Hawker Hunter jets, belonging to the Chilean air force, arrived in Scotland’s East Kilbride Rolls Royce factory for repair and maintenance. In protest against the atrocities and human rights violations of the Pinochet dictatorship, engineers risked their jobs and livelihoods by refusing to work on the engines. Despite their bosses’ mounting pressure on them to do the job, workers ‘blacked’ the engines and left them outside to rust. They continued their boycott until the engines disappeared one night four years later, but they never knew what impact their actions had had in Chile.
In Nae Pasaran, Felipe Bustos Sierra, himself the son of a Chilean exile, investigates the very real impact of the Rolls Royce engineers’ actions. As he does so, he shares the unfolding story with four of the trade unionists involved in the boycott; Bob Fulton, Robert Somerville, Stuart Barrie and John Keenan. With humour, dignity, integrity and enormous modesty, these now-elderly men discover what their actions meant for Chileans during the Pinochet dictatorship. Towards the end of the film, one of the workers brushes off words of thanks from a Chilean former political prisoner, and instead highlights other words uttered by the Chilean: ‘I’d have done the same for you’.
Nae Pasaran is a powerful and moving portrayal of workers’ solidarity, across the world.
(The film’s UK broadcast premiere is Sunday 24 Feb 2019 on the new @BBCScotland channel. The film will be available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days afterwards.)