Nostalgia for the Light
Respondent, Lawrence Liang
Lawrence Liang is a writer and researcher at the Alternative Law Forum. He works on the intersection of law, culture and technology and is currently completing a thesis and book on law, justice and cinema in India.
For his new film, master director Patricio Guzmán, famed for his political documentaries capturing the history and politics of Chile (The Battle of Chile, Salvador Allende, The Pinochet Case), travels 10,000 feet above sea level to the driest place on earth. Atop the mountains of the Atacama Desert, astronomers from all over the world gather to observe the stars. The sky is so translucent that it allows them to see right to the boundaries of the universe.
The Atacama Desert is also a place where the harsh heat of the sun keeps human remains intact: those of Pre-Columbian mummies; 19th century explorers and miners; and the remains of political prisoners, “disappeared” by the Chilean army after the military coup of September 11, 1973.
So while astronomers examine the most distant and oldest galaxies, at the foot of the mountains, women, surviving relatives of the disappeared whose bodies were dumped here, search, even after twenty-five years, for the remains of their loved ones, to reclaim their families’ histories.
Melding the celestial quest of the astronomers and the earthly one of the Chilean women, Nostalgia for the Light is a gorgeous, moving, and deeply personal odyssey.
About the Director
Patricio Guzmán was born in 1941 in Santiago, Chile. As an adolescent, inspired by the work of Chris Marker, Frederic Rossif and Louis Malle, he was drawn to documentary. He studied filmmaking at the Film Institute at the Catholic University of Chile and at the Official School of Film in Madrid, where he earned his degree in Film Direction in 1970.
Guzmán returned to Chile in 1971, and directed his first documentary, The First Year, which covered the first 12 months of Salvador Allende’s government. The film was released in commercial theatres that very year. Chris Marker, impressed by the film, offered to help get it seen in France. Two years later, Marker again provided invaluable assistance again when he donated the raw stock necessary to commence filming The Battle of Chile, Guzmán’s 4 and ½ hour documentary trilogy about Allende’s final year. Filming on this project continued until the very day of the coup d’etat.
The day of the coup, Guzmán was imprisoned in Chile’s National Stadium, Where he remained for 15 days. After regaining his freedom, he left for Europe with his footage. Eventually, the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) offered to support the editing and post-production. Guzmán flew to Havana and finished the film a few years later.
The Battle of Chile won 6 Grand Prizes in Europe and Latin America. It was shown in commercial theatres in 35 countries. The Cineaste Magazine declared it as “One of the ten best political films in the world.”
Guzmán continues to make documentaries, many focusing on Chilean concerns. In 1987 he made In God’s Name (Grand Prize, Florence ’87) about the Catholic Church’s fight for human rights in Chile. From 1990 to 1992 he worked on The Southern Cross (Grand Prize, Marseille ’92) about the theology of liberation and popular religion in Latin America. In 1995, Town in Stasis focused on the historical memory of a Mexican village.
In 1997, Chile, Obstinate Memory looked into collective political amnesia in Chile. 1999 brought Robinson Crusoe Island about the remote Chilean island of the same name. In 2001, The Pinochet Case examined the case brought against General Augusto Pinochet (Grand Prize, Marseille ’01). In 2002, he completed Madrid, a look at Spain’s capital.
Guzmán’s acclaimed, award-winning film Salvador Allende (2006) tells Allende’s story, from his youth in Valparaiso and his early presidential campaigns, to his bold nationalist reforms and his death during the violent rightist coup of September 11, 1973.
The master filmmaker’s gorgeous and personal meditation new work, Nostalgia for the Light (2010), won the Best Documentary (Prix ARTE) at the European Film Academy Awards. Patricio Guzmán currently chairs the International Documentary Film Festival (FIDOCS) in Santiago, Chile, which he founded in 1997.
THE ATACAMA DESERT
The desert is a vast, timeless space that is made up of salt and wind. A fragment of planet Mars on planet Earth. Everything there is motionless. And yet this stretch of land is filled with mysterious traces of the past. There are still ruins of villages, two thousand years old. The trains abandoned in the sand by the 19th century miners have not moved. There are also some gigantic domes that look like fallen space vessels in which the astronomers live. All around there are human remains. When night falls, the Milky Way is so bright that it projects shadows onto the ground.
THE INVISIBLE PRESENT
For an astronomer, the only real time is that which comes from the past. The light of the stars takes hundreds of thousands of years to reach us. That is why astronomers are always looking back, to the past. It’s the same for historians, archaeologists, geologists, paleontologists and the women who search for their disappeared. They all have something in common: they observe the past in order to be able to better understand the present and future. In the face of the uncertain future, only the past can enlighten us.
Memory guarantees us life, as does the warmth of sunlight. Human beings would be nothing without memory –objects with no pulse- with no beginning and no future. After 18 years of dictatorship, Chile is once again experiencing democracy. But at what price… Many have lost their friends, relatives, houses, schools and universities. And others have lost their memory, perhaps forever.