Astronomers scan the skies while Chilean women search for remnants of Pinochet's victims. Director Patricio Guzman's new documentary looks at the lasting impact of dictatorship on the people of the Atacama desert.
It’s an elegant, elaborate web of connections between seemingly unrelated ideas bound with gossamer threads. Nostalgia for the Light, the most recent film by acclaimed Chilean director Patricio Guzman, delves into archaeology, astronomy, and anthropology in Chile’s Atacama Desert. The filming is almost as beautiful as the story he weaves. Ultimately, the film deals with the power of memory and the pull of the past whilst paying homage to humanity’s grace and to the fine art of science.
It’s testament to Guzman’s deft ability as a storyteller and narrator that this plot carries the viewer as it does. At just under an hour and a half, he’s more than just a good storyteller, he’s efficient, too. The film tracks through an unusual collection of small stories - vignettes almost - that do not initially seem compatible. Yet Guzman surprises the viewer walking these thematic tightropes, making it seem both simple and easy. As viewers, we’ve made the leap with Guzman before he’s let us become aware of the distance. The documentary opens with a series of mechanical shots of a telescope whirring, almost dancing. After progressing through a discussion of the climate of the Atacama desert, Chilean tyrant Pinochet’s regime and his concentration camps, the meaning of the “present,” and searching for bone fragments in the desert, the last scene of the movie is Santiago’s skyline. Panning across its twinkling urban lights, an earthly mimicry of the constellations, Guzman tells us “memory has a gravitational force, attracting us to it. Memory enables us to live in present. Those without it don’t live anywhere.” With the illumination of each facet of his story, Guzman crafts a strong central narrative. It's how he connects those facets that keeps the documentary firmly in the realm of an exploration rather than a lecture.
One of those vignettes, arguably the most poignant, involves the political detainees of the Chacabuco prison. A group of prisoners, led by one Dr. Alvarez, built a rudimentary telescope of wood scraps and paper while incarcerated. With Dr. Alvarez’s guidance, the group would map out the stars overhead, following their passage across the sky. LuizHenriquez, one of prisoners, said that being able to watch the stars gave them a sense of freedom. Before it was banned by the guards, fearing that the men would be able to escape by navigating with the stars, Henriquez learned the names of the constellations he still watches.
Tempering scientific technicalities with narrative punch, Guzman presents ideas with staying power. During a lab visit with Chilean scientists, astronomers GasparGalaz and George Preston. begin discussing the digital imprints of the stars. These graphs allow scientists to convert the stellar observations into wavelengths, and measure the calcium in the stars. “It is a story of the beginnings of us,” Preston says. “The calcium in our bones was there from the beginning,” he adds, explaining that the calcium in our bones was released during the Big Bang. “We live among the trees but we also live among the stars, among the galaxies. We are part of the Universe,” he says.
The allure of the stars is enough to justify a first watch. With the careful composition of his telescope shots, and some remarkable pictures of space, the documentary has a distinctly pretty, balanced feel. The full sky-swirling sequence at around the ten-minute marker is a little gem. But if that stardust seduction isn't enough for you, the movie's major figures and themes will pull you in. Nostalgia is an earnest plea for the preservation of memory, both of the distant and near past. While Chile’s path is both beautiful and fraught, every viewer can connect to and understand this desire, this need. For a viewer unaware of Chile's more recent history, the events he described were shocking and the peoples’ resilience inspiring. Concentration camps in the 70s? The marginalization of their Native American population? The government's denial of history as an attempt to skirt condemnation?
In Guzman’s discussion of memory and the importance of the past, it would be impossible not to recognize the grace of these Chileans. It is exceedingly evident in Guzman's treatment of the women who search the desert for the bodies of their lost loved ones. They seek tiny parts of the family they lost, hoping that with the shattered pieces of bone they'll also find closure. It's in these moments, where the documentary superficially features the grace of those women, or of families broken by tragedy, that the film's political edge exerts itself most obviously. Pisagua Mass Grave, unearthed in June 1990, was the burial site of many political prisoners of Pinochet’s 1973 coup. Here at Pisagua, engineers, scientists and scholars, aided by the women of the desert, discovered the remains of reputedly leftist detainees and students. “If my son had been executed during any dictatorship, no matter who I was, my education or my beliefs, I would never be able to forget,” archaeologistLauturo Nunez says. “I would be morally obliged to preserve his memory. We cannot forget our dead.” Speaking of Pisagua, Nunez implores that “a tragedy like this must not be forgotten.”
The weakest aspect of the movie, so minor as to be almost irrelevant, is the scene transitions. A critical look back atStar Wars will display just how tricky seamless scene transitions can be. At least for Nostalgia, the scene shifts aren't quite as cheesy. Guzman uses the same imagery repeatedly for the transition: sand and dust glinting as it settles. In those moments, the film seems clumsy and amateurish. Luckily they run briefly, so almost as soon as that idea materializes, the offending shimmers of falling dust are gone.
In Nostalgia for the Light, Guzman presents a remarkable depiction of a pristine landscape favoured by history's scientists and of the triumph of humankind's willpower over the politicised infliction of pain that simultaneously takes place there. It’s an unusual, compelling story, the kind of documentary that’s hard to pin down and near-perfect in it’s encapsulated expansiveness. A worthy watch.