Review: Nostalgia de la Luz
Edith Sangüeza meets the Chilean film-maker Patricio Guzmán and steps into the Atacama desert through his new film, ‘Nostalgia por la luz’.
Patricio Guzmán Lozanes (born August 11, 1941) is a Chilean documentary filmmaker whose work interrogates the urgency of the past in the present. ‘Un país sin cine documental es como una familia sin album de fotografias’, he has said, and despite living abroad in France he has taken it upon himself to play family photographer for Chile through the years.
In documentaries such as ‘La Batalla de Chile’ (parts I-III, 1972-79); ‘La Cruz del Sur’ (1989-92); ‘El Caso Pinochet’ (1999-2001); and ‘Salvador Allende’ (2004), he examines Chilean history, the brutality of the Pinochet years, and the marginalization of indigenous identities and beliefs. Critic Jon Davies has called him ‘the obstinate chronicler of Chile’s suffering and keeper of its memories’.
Other films—such as an adaptation of Luis González’s ‘Pueblo en Vilo’ (1995), or ‘Mi Julio Verne’ (2005)—explore the filmmaker’s more general interests in history, science, and science fiction. With his latest feature-length documentary ‘Nostalgia de la Luz’, screened at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and recently awarded the Amnesty International Prize for Cinema and Human Rights, Guzmán distills his wide-ranging concerns into a poignant and compelling meditation on loss, the search for the past, and the nature of time. ‘Nostalgia de la Luz’ was released in late March in the United States, where I had the opportunity to see a screening and to speak briefly with Guzmán. ‘Obstinate Memories: The Documentaries of Patricio Guzmán’, a retrospective of his films, was recently held (April 1-7) at BAMcinématek in New York.
Guzmán’s fierce and beautiful documentary opens with a shot of an antique German telescope—a sight that launches Guzmán, the film’s narrator, into ruminating on his early interest in science and of the innocence of his childhood in 1950s Santiago, a place that seemed remote from the world beyond the mountains. But this shelter was an illusion and Chile suddenly became the center of the world, he says: scientifically, as foreign astronomers flocked to the Atacama (the first telescope in the desert dates from 1977), and politically, after Allende’s suicide and Pinochet’s rise to power. From the beginning of the film, he thus sets up the link between science’s exploratory search outward and the inward search into the past.
The Atacama Desert, long a source of inspiration for Guzmán, is the stage where these ways of searching come together, and astronomy, archaeology, and Chile’s tortured political past intersect. Seen from space, the desert is the only ‘mancha marrón’ on the blue and white globe, and the clarity of the dry Atacama skies drew astronomers to the site. This clarity applies to the desert itself, where relics and reminders of Chile’s past never disappear, but are layered on top of each other. Guzmán describes the Atacama as an open book—‘un gran libro abierto de la memoria’—where thousand year-old rock drawings left by Pre-Columbian herders linger in the shadows of enormous telescopes. The desert is also witness to the more recent past, which collides with earlier history. Makeshift cemeteries and exposed coffins litter the landscape, the last resting place for impoverished miners who died in the brutal conditions of the 19th-century mines created to extract nitrates and other minerals from the desert. Concentration camps remain too, once housing for miners later repurposed to imprison Pinochet’s political prisoners, some of whom themselves looked to the stars for a sense of freedom. The scattered bones of the military regime’s victims (those not dumped into the sea, at least) share the desert with Pre-Columbian mummies.
Guzmán evokes the parallels between the astronomy and archaeology that take place in the Atacama. Both, he suggests, are investigations into the past and its persistence in the present. Astronomers’ search for the stars is a kind of celestial archaeology; the light transmitted by distant planets and stars takes so long to reach Earth that the images they study are of phenomena that might no longer exist. Like the archaeologists Guzmán interviews who research Pre-Columbian relics, they are studying the distant past.
There are others who comb the barren desert too: women who tirelessly walk the landscape in search of any remains of loved ones disappeared by the regime. Pinochet’s soldiers would dispose of bodies in the sea, in mass graves, or in fragments scattered through the desert. Guzmán focuses on two women, Vicky Saavedra and Violeta Berríos, who have kept up their quest in the more than twenty years since the end of the dictatorship, even as groups of women from other parts of Chile have gradually stopped seeking out the remains. Guzmán’s profile showcases the nobility of these modern Antigones, whose still-raw grief and insistence on justice will not allow the past to be forgotten.
The line between past and present is tenuous in the desert. Indeed, it is always a fine line, as Gaspar Galaz, an astronomer from the Universidad Católica de Chile, maintains. Everything, he tells Guzmán, happens in the past; ‘El presente no existe’. Astronomers are used to the idea of living and working in the past, but the laws of physics and the speed of light mean that we are all, in fact, part of the past. This is just more obvious in the desert.
Thus astronomy, like the desert itself, becomes a metaphor for the persistence of memory. One of the last figures featured in the film, Valentina, is the daughter of parents who were both disappeared by the military. Her work as an astronomer gives her comfort through the fact that no matter is lost. Her parents remain, not just in the stories passed down by her grandparents, but in the very dust of the desert and the stars. As another astronomer, George Preston, points out, the calcium in our bones is the same material as the calcium in the stars.
Through the desert, Guzmán elegantly brings together many strands in an elegy for Chile and its past. His lifelong interest in science and science fiction turns astronomy into poetry (the title of the film is taken from a book by French astrophysicist and poet Michel Cassé). Yet metaphysical musings exist alongside calibrated outrage, when he turns to the human rights abuses of Pinochet’s regime, and also of the 19th century mining camps. His camera, unflinching as the harsh desert light, pauses over the skeleton of a young woman, one of Pinochet’s victims.
With this film, Guzmán insists once again on remembrance and the presence of the past, a theme in many of his other works. These themes take on a particular urgency in his native Chile, where the legacy of Pinochet—or indeed of the largely forgotten 19th century, which saw the marginalization and killing of indigenous peoples and the creation of the exploitative mining industry in the name of progress—has never truly been faced. Guzmán describes one couple who lived through the Pinochet years as a metaphor for Chile. Miguel is a former architect and political prisoner who kept himself sane while imprisoned in five different concentration camps by producing and then destroying elaborate blueprints that he memorized and later recreated to use as testimony against the military; his wife has Alzheimer’s.
The desert thus becomes a repository of memory for an ‘amnesiac’ nation, as Guzmán described Chile when I spoke with him on 18 March. Unlike Argentina or Brazil, which also experienced military dictatorships, Chile has never thoroughly undertaken truth commissions or reconciliations to deal with its past. ‘No soy nostalgico’, he said—he has no mawkish fondness for Chilean music or hot dogs—but ‘un país que tiene memoria hace todas las cosas mejor’.
Half-Bolivian and half-American, Edith is Pulsamérica’s arts writer. She is currently studying Latin American Studies at Oxford, with a focus on cultural and visual history, after studying art history at Yale. When not trawling the papers for news of Mario Vargas Llosa, she enjoys baking and trying to decipher tweets in Quechua.