(2010) director Patricio Guzmán
Contemplative and thought-provoking, the documentary Nostalgia for the Light peers into space and time, the deepest edges of which astronomers use massive telescopes to view. But the film also peers into the muddy depths of a more recent history, the coup d’etat in Chile in 1973 that brought to power the murderous Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, the many people tortured and killed under his regime and the ongoing silence that mars Chile’s presence about this dark time not long in the past.
What brings these potentially distant topics together is the setting of the Atacama Desert, considered the most arid place on Earth. For those looking into the sky, the clarity is better than anywhere else on the planet, adding impact of vision to these earthbound telescopes, whose tasks are to venture back in time. The concept of looking “back in time” in Astronomy relates to the fact that though light travels at such a great speed, even the light of the sun takes time to reach us. So the stars that we see, the moment of light that we see, actually occurred in the past. And the further into space one looks, the further and further in time we “see”.
Both poetic and scientific, these concepts drive director Patricio Guzmán. He opens the film on the opening of one of these massive telescopes and shares his personal connection to astronomy. As he turns his gaze to the desert itself, this dry wasteland (rich as it has been in minerals), the comparison to the surface of a foreign planet is not a hard one to follow. But beneath the cooked, cracked desert are many, many bodies of “the disappeared”. And some of their loved ones continue to scour the desert for their bodies.
Due to the aridity, bodies do not decompose as they would in many other places, and a body of some ancient llama driver, millennia-old could show up almost as complete as one that had been left there in the last century. The Pinochet government cruelly removed many of the bodies (or claimed to at least), saying that they tossed them into the ocean so that they could never be reclaimed. One woman who shares the story of having found her brother’s foot, how even alone with that small fragment, connected in a way that mourners yearn for.
It’s a remarkable film in that sense. While not at heart a post-modern discourse, it did actually bring me to mind of Jacques Derrida. Not so much a “play” on concepts, but a deepening and enriching of these two potentially disparate foci.