Just 10 years ago, the idea of having a film festival strand focussed on contemporary Chilean cinema would have seemed like an affectation.

There was nothing. The film scene in the South American country was as arid as the Atacama desert.

How times have changed. Today we can't get enough, not just of Chilean films, but Latin American cinema generally. It's not a coincidence that the Glasgow Film Festival follows last year's country focus on Brazil with this year's on Chile.

From the 1960s through to the 1990s South America was beset by dictatorship, neo-liberalism and corruption. Filmmakers in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile variously had to contend with censorship, threat to life and liberty, and the financial dismantling of their industries.

But as each of these countries settled into stable democracy, so a new generation of filmmakers started to make their mark. The Brazilian Walter Salles, whose Central Station in 1998 was a breakthrough for his own country's industry, has put it very well. "The new wave is not random," he says, "it has to do with the re-democratisation that occurred on our continent.

"Twenty-five years ago we could hardly express ourselves - Brazil was living in a military dictatorship, so was Argentina, so was Chile. How could you have a strong national cinema if you could not express yourself? Well, now we can."

For a brief period in Chile, from the late 1960s, cinema was part and parcel of the movement towards socialist political change, capturing that movement's excitement and social conscience in a variety of forms, from Raúl Ruíz's experimental films to the neo-realism of Aldo Francia's Valparaíso mi amor, about children suffering the effects of social injustice.

But with General Pinochet's coup against President Salvador Allende in 1973, cinema was savagely repressed. Filmmakers were amongst the thousands murdered or disappeared; many, including Ruíz, went into exile.

After Pinochet stepped down in 1990, the return to a meaningful film industry was a slow one, with Chilean cinemagoers fed a diet of Hollywood imports and home-grown, popcorn comedies.

In 2004 Andres Wood's Machuca (2004) turned the tide. Charting the events leading to the coup through the eyes of a child, the film was a beautifully recreated and deeply sad portrait of ordinary people from different strands of society, with little idea what was in store.

The film was not only a huge hit at home, but made waves overseas and encouraged a younger generation of directors to have the confidence not to ape Hollywood, but to tell their own stories.

Alicia Scherson's Play (2005) was a romantic comedy concerning a Mapuche nurse and a well-to-do architect who meet in Santiago. Scherson dealt with serious issues in her country - Chilean identity, the rural/urban divide, the gulf between rich and poor.

Yet, as befitting her title, she handled these themes with an approach that was playful and light, visually imaginative and a little enigmatic.

Sebastián Silva's brilliant The Maid (2009) posited the idea that "hell hath no fury" like a maid who simply thinks she's being scorned. Throwing a light on the prevalence of domestic service in Latin America, Silva steered a sly course between psycho-thriller, black comedy and sympathetic social drama.

As the maid in question, Catalina Saavedra managed to chill, touch and amuse in equal measure. Women appear to be the outstanding performers in Chile. Paulina García also gave an award-winning tour-de-force in Sebastián Lelio's Gloria (2013), as a middle-aged divorcée in search of love in the cheesy singles bars and discos of Santiago.

Another film that played in the UK to rave reviews was Nostalgia for the Light, a documentary that revealed the juxtaposition of wonder and horror in the Atacama, where observatories sit a short distance from the buried remains of Pinochet's victims. Incidentally, the film reminded one of a landmark in Chilean cinema, namely Guzmán's The Battle for Chile, a stunning document of the events in the 1970s leading to the coup.

While most Chilean filmmakers set their fictional stories in the present, Pablo Larraín has made a tremendous impact while looking to the past, through an extraordinary trilogy on the Pinochet regime. The deliciously twisted Tony Manero (2008) viewed Santiago in the grip of repression, through the experience of a psychopathic disco dancer obsessed with John Travolta; Post Mortem (2010) cast back to the coup, through the terrifying experience of a mortician; and No (2012) charts the real-life advertising campaign that led to Pinochet's surprising fall from power. One couldn't help feeling that the Oscar nomination for No was a resounding "yes" for Chilean cinema, the seal on a remarkable comeback.

Glasgow's CineChile showcases the diversity, wit and strangeness of Chilean cinema. The Dance of Reality, by the legendary Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, Sante Sangre), is described as a "magical mystery tour" through the director's past; Illiterate features Gloria's Paulina Garcia as a woman desperate to conceal the fact that she can't read; Root is an absorbing tale about a young woman who helps a servant's son search for his father; in The Summer of Flying Fish, an affluent family visiting their lakeside estate are plagued by strange goings on.

The interest of Scottish cinemagoers in these films may reflect what Ruíz, who died in France but never forgot his Chilean roots, once said. "Everybody is becoming an exile nowadays. Everyone is concerned with remote countries and cultures, and the connections are more important than the identity itself."