Nostalgia for the Light

02/26/2012

Chile / 2010 / Spanish & English

Directed by Patricio Guzmán

Still from 'Nostalgia for the Light'In the 1970’s Patricio Guzmán established himself as a master of nonfiction with the three films that comprise The Battle of Chile (1975), which is a chronicle of the coup d’etat that sent him into exile, and a playing out of a very real, painfully immediate life-and-death struggle in which he and the other filmmakers involved its production found themselves engaged. To this day it is collective and personal memory, and how that translates into shared history, that are his primary preoccupations, as well as ways to visualize those. He adds astronomy – not actually a new facet, as he has made several short documentaries on the subject – which he includes as being intimately related with the other three themes. While Nostalgia for the Light cannot exactly be called an educational film, it is a film that has a lot to teach about the frontiers of discovery and exploration. The poetic updrafts that lift it off the ground do not abstract the more sober realities he addresses, but give them a monumental quality as they impose on his consciousness, and without relegating the images to that which is expressly translunar or unknown. To him the cosmos is an accessible place, if only for the eye, as nakedly apparent as the Atacama desert, a place where he finds both astronomers and archaeologists diligently working in the midst of nothingness.

This elegant documentary-essay has a true visual bravura that transpires so quietly, and with such bright clarity, that it hardly registers as such. Guzmán’s favored flourishes herein – oceanic time-lapses of a drifting night sky, illuminated space dust floating around our heads – are integrated with the earthly by a binding feeling of wonderment. While on paper the disparate themes seem, in aggregate, to lend themselves to incoherency, they make absolute sense in his capable hands, and everything is kept joyfully eye-level, intimately autobiographical, and measuredly thoughtful. He visits an antique German observatory near where he grew up, with a telescope of varnished wood that is very much still in use. It provided his first glimpses beyond this world, free from a provincial upbringing in an isolated nation. Years later, after having left his home and returned, he casts his eye upon the Atacama, a coastal desert of profound and unbelievable dryness in Chile’s far North. Of anywhere in the country it is here, where the sky is rich with stars and the ground studded with kept secrets, that has drawn scientists and historians of many nationalities for many decades. Just as stargazing inflamed his mind as a child, years later it would give solace to a group of political prisoners confined in the desert.

Still from 'Nostalgia for the Light'Guzmán looks for the parallels again and again, finding relations between those who search the outwardly reticent moonscape of the desert and the “archaeologists of the sky”, the astronomers, who use it as a base from which to look up. There is always so much overlap, and it remains compelling no matter how far afield he locates it, like the leap of imagination it takes to notice images in constellations. The director finds connections in the lives of astronomers to the painful memory of the nation. No one who was alive during that time was unaffected. Looking outward at the stars is not a means to escape planet Earth, but perhaps to understand it better. A young astronomer whose parents were both killed by the dictatorship contextualizes her pain in celestial terms: new solar systems form from exploded stars – things never come to an end, but continue on in the form of chain reactions.

Scientists try to date the minerals found in our bones, some of which are as old as matter itself, finding their birth at the moment that the universe came into being. In a fanciful stretch, it is as though astronomers are discovering our primordial cousins in the form of stars, inaccessible bodies that are nonetheless partly composed of the same calcium that we are. This is the most ancient history imaginable, recorded but up to human beings to decode. An astronomer who grew up in exile from Chile has returned to analyze surplus energy shaken off by the big bang that is only now reaching us. Meanwhile the young man’s mother works as a therapist for former torture victims, themselves albums of physical and psychological trauma internalized.

The desert and outer space: both are silent immensities without human habitation, and, to Guzmán, both represent an inner record at the same time, two planes of introspection and seeking that reflect one another. He crosses paths with women who devote their lives to hunting through the gray galaxy of rock shards for the remains of Pinochet’s victims. The sister of one of the thousands of “disappeared” people laments there not being a telescope that can look downward, through the earth, to locate the forgotten bodies that lie beneath it. History may be seen as being a bit like a telescope – a series of correlating mirrors that bring us in direct contact with that which is distant, things that have happened or have yet to. Large, inconceivable things are transported hither and shrunken to the size of an eyepiece.

Still from 'Nostalgia for the Light'Fixated on what lies behind us (history, origins) and what lies beyond (the future, the cosmos), we take for granted that we exist in the present. But what we see is not happening in the present but rather, after an infinitesimal delay, in the past. The light takes barely a moment to reach us, the sound somewhat more. Even the feeling of a stimulus takes time to course through the body, a thought from one region of the brain to another. The present may exist, but it excludes us, just as the future is perpetually darting ahead, the past yawning ever greater at hand. Occupying the present, some sense of element or place, demands knowledge of the past. Like sifting through the cosmos for primordial explosions, Chile is gaining ground, building – bone by bone, memory by memory – an understanding of its past.

An archaeologist named Nuñez compares his work to that of the astronomers, for both his kind and theirs are drawn to the desert, an ideal place in more ways than one. For the astronomers, it is the pure sky above through which they study ancient history. Events that they witness out in distant solar systems may have happened millions of years ago. Meanwhile the desert surface, practically without moisture, provides an unblemished look into ancient chapters of historical record. One interesting thing the man talks about is how much of recent history is buried, somewhere in the consciousness of the people, voluntarily hidden for myriad reasons. This is quite true – but why? Are we eluding implication, as if acknowledgement were akin to a confession? The stars represent glimpses of collective destiny, and so will human history if it continues misunderstood, misread or swept away.

While the desert may conceal secrets, it offers little to help disposing of them altogether, like the ocean, which has the attendant propensity for regurgitating evidence. Opposite but equally condemning, the Atacama faithfully preserves, awaiting seekers of the truth to access its photographic memory. One of the more fascinating interviews is with a former prisoner, an architect who, upon escaping to Europe, drew pictures and floor plans of the concentration camps from memory, and with startling detail. These were used when the figureheads of the dictatorship were put on trial, no doubt dumbfounded that buildings of which they had long destroyed every piece of evidence were coming back to damn them. He records long-held images of despair, misery, and survival, and does so in a seemingly dispassionate way, as though he were an unwilling conduit of truth, just like the arid soil of the desert wasteland that he fled.

Still from 'Nostalgia for the Light'Successive looks find the place brimming with trinkets of historical moments, from the 8,000-year-old mummies (clothing and all) to animal carvings done by shepherds a millennium ago, depressing vestiges of Chile’s colonial past to the mass graves of people murdered by Pinochet’s military dictatorship. Of the latter two periods, there are tangible connections; the housing blocks for 19th Century miners were used once again as housing in a concentration camp. Guzmán notes that, “all the military had to do was add barbed wire” – the government’s prisoners and capitalism’s slaves had similar experiences with the desert. The personal effects of political prisoners (in some cases, all that now remains of them) mingle with the vivid pebble collections of mysterious nomads who once circulated through the region. Meanwhile the shadows of camp complexes are carved into the desert surface like a vanished city – modern and intentional ruins.

Vast machinery rises into gray oblivion. The immersive crashes and echoes of the telescopes being constructed form a soundtrack for images of the galaxy, the timbres of the heavens. It is as though the technicians are building their ladders all the way to space. The lights of Santiago at night act as an inverted galaxy, a surrogate for the stars above them that cannot be seen. It would seem that the nostalgia to which the film’s title refers is a remembrance of a time when, for Guzmán, the universe was all lit up – his consciousness had not yet expanded as it would during the Chilean revolution, nor was there the same sense of the vastness of history and space. He reminisces about the clarity of it all, for the more one learns, the more truths become apparent – and the more one has the feeling of moving through murkiness. And while the light has gotten wider, farther and more remote, surrounding and filling unknown complexities, it is still traveling. There are corners that are so far away that the light seen through telescopes has yet to reach them.

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