Alicia Armstrong Larraín: The Forgotten Pioneer of Chilean Film

SANTIAGO – Filmmaker Paula Armstrong seeks financing for a short film focused on forgotten filmmaker Alicia Armstrong. Active in the 1920s, she only released one film which has been lost to history. Paula Armstrong hopes to shine the light on forgotten figures of Chile’s cultural history.

Filmmaker Paula Armstrong (Paula) seeks financing for a short documentary about Alicia Armstrong (Alicia), one of the forgotten pioneers of Chilean filmmaking. The short film will explore the possible family connection between the director and the subject, as well as the forgotten female directors of the early days of film and the missing heritage of Chile’s history.

Alicia was active in the 1920s and only released one film called “El Lecho Nupcial,” (The Bridal Bed) in 1926. The film received scathing reviews, Alicia retired from filmmaking and was ultimately forgotten, and her movie was lost to history.

Paula Armstrong’s Project

Paula first heard of Alicia in October 2020 when she was approached by Antonio Machuca, who was investigating female directors in Chile.

Paula told Chile Today, “Since I had directed a couple of things, he contacted me to include me on the list, ask me about my work and if I was related to Alicia Armstrong de Vicuña, who was a silent movie director in Chile …. I’m a filmmaker and I consider myself a feminist, so for me to not know any of the female pioneers of film was shocking.”

“However, I can’t say if I’m related to her or not because that would give away the ending to my documentary.”

She further explained, “But Armstrong isn’t a common last name, which only added to my surprise. That’s why I like to say that at that moment, my documentary began taking shape. I felt angry at myself and at everyone for not knowing her, so I began researching and filming what I found out, which is why the documentary is structured around the process of discovering her.”

“Even though the main topic of the documentary is my relation with Alicia, that is mostly an excuse to talk about heritage and our collective memory, as well as female history and how these women pioneers were famous at some point in history but were later forgotten.”

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“These female pioneers were Gabriela Bussenius, who released her first film ‘Agonia de Arauco,’ in 1917; Rosario Rodríguez, she directed ‘Malditas Sean las Mujeres,’ released in 1925; and, lastly, Alicia Armstrong with ‘Lecho Nupcial,’ in 1926. However, Rosario Rodríguez directed one last film called ‘Envenadora,’ in 1928. After that there were no female fiction directors in Chile until Valeria Sarmiento in 1990.”

“I think most of them stopped making movies because of the harsh reviews. Filmmakers back then were people who had the resources to self-finance, so I don’t think they lacked funding. Except for Gabriela Bussenius who continued working with her brother, these pioneers disappeared from public life. We could probably blame the dictatorship, but that was later, so we are unsure what happened between 1928 and ’73, but I think some men are to blame.”

Paula explains, “Alicia’s movie was about Elena, a woman from the high class that falls in love with another high class man, but he is involved in a scandal and is forced to flee the country. The heartbroken Elena ends up marrying an older rich man from a slightly lower class. The conflict begins on their honeymoon when she tells her husband that she is not a virgin, which was something really shocking for the time period.”

“The movie presents a woman who is sexually active, something that was very repressed in that time, especially in the upper classes, one could argue that it was a feminist film since it was directed by a woman, and it presents and uncomfortable subject for the same societal class that would go and see the movie. She was already presenting the idea that a woman cannot be a virgin and have an independent life. Unfortunately we don’t know much more of the film.”

“In fact in the time period these women were active (1920s), over 120 movies were made, but only 3 survived. Among those lost is Alicia’s film although some pictures and an official synopsis have been found,” Paula added. “The movie is lost, but I don’t want to say that we will never see it, not all hope is lost, maybe some distant relative has a copy in a drawer somewhere. Those kinds of things happen.”

To properly capture the time period, Paula was able to get a hold of a video recording from the same time period. “I will try to reconstruct Alicia’s movie by using the movies my great-grandfather filmed in 1930, which weren’t just home movies, they had plots, and he would make his cousins act in the videos pretending to be robbers. I wanted to use them because it is from the same time period as Alicia and because the images fit well in the documentary.”

“By speaking about them, we are preventing them from being completely forgotten. I’m doing my part in keeping them alive and that way I can inspire other women to be filmmakers. The amount of female fiction directors working in 1926 is only a bit lower than in 2021. That’s why I named my documentary Alicia Armstrong Larraín, that way people will always remember her name.”

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Early days of Film in Chile

The first ever film presentation in Chile took place on Aug. 25, 1896, when 10 short films directed by the Lumiere brothers were shown in the Teatro Unión Central in Santiago. Less than a year later, photographer Luis Oddó Osorio became the first filmmaker in Chile when he premiered his documentary, “Una Cueca en Cavancha,” a minute-long scene of a couple dancing on the beach.

For about a decade, filmmaking consisted of documentaries consisting of military parades, firefighter training exercises, and home movies filmed by wealthy families. It wasn’t until 1910 when the first fiction film was made to celebrate the centennial of Chilean independence. Titled “Manuel Rodríguez,” the 20-minute film showcased the struggles of Manuel Rodríguez during the war for independence.

The majority of productions during this time were self-funded and consisted of wealthy families and artists looking to create their own films, since Chile’s low population at the time meant a limited audience and thus making it harder for movies to make their money back.

By 1920, the film industry was in full swing, with 16 movies being released in 1925, a record that wasn’t finally beaten until 2008. The boom came to an end in the 1930s when the economic crash and the arrival of Hollywood movies took away the small audience it had.

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