In search of lost time, Patricio Guzmán’s documentary Nostalgia For The Light is a celebration of memory, remembering the past in the Atacama Desert.
The Sands Of Time by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s tempting to think Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its infamous prehistoric bone-throw might have inspired Patricio Guzmán’s documentary. But Nostalgia For The Light‘s enlightening interlocking of unburied human remains and the cosmos isn’t due to the sci-fi masterpiece’s sublime match-cut, but rather Chile’s own Atacama Desert. It’s a barren wasteland, dry enough for bodies not to decompose and cloudless enough for the Milky Way to light up the desert sands with an unparalleled translucent clarity. Like desert lines engraved elsewhere in the South American earth, different threads run parallel and interlink, as astronomers, archaeologists and relatives of Chile’s disappeared dig into the past in the hope of finding bodies, celestial or otherwise.
Nostalgia For The Light progresses through its talking heads with a fatalistic gravitas, carefully hewing a path out of interviews and carefully timed montage. The documentary opens with the beautiful mechanics of the wheels and cogs that turn the desert’s oldest telescope, the German-built Hayde, as it revolves and rotates and casts its eye over the universe with an irreversible constancy worthy of the turning of the spheres. Already we’re in the land of metaphor, and the analogies fly thick and fast as the astronomer waxing philosophical on the impossibility of the present gives way to the archaeologist exploring this sandy gateway to the past.
A telescope is used to bring the past and present together, just as archaeology brings the forgotten past back into the present. The dunes recall the craters of the moon, just as Lautaro’s nostalgia for buried objects echoes the star-gazer’s own patient fascination with piecing together the past. The Atacama Desert, with its llamas and faces scratched onto rocks and its sun-preserved corpses of 19th century miners, is a time-worn place of transit between the high plains and the sea. Its lack of humidity makes the sand dry and the air transparent, and a perfect environment for both astronomer and archaeologist to look back in time. Preserved in crystals of salt, objects are frozen in time, like the tarnished spoons which clang into the emptiness, the desert a vast book of memory written in the sand. And while the desert hides bodies thousands of years old, Chile seems to have less interest in unburying its more recent history, from the marginalisation of its indigenous peoples to the still very raw wound of Pinochet’s disappeared.
Luis was imprisoned in a concentration camp in the desert, in an abandoned mine festooned with watchtowers and barbed wire. The traces of the prison have long since been dismantled, and the names of barracks’ prisoners scratched off the walls. But for Luis the stars provided an irrevocable freedom from the horrors of the Pinochet camp, with his home-made wooden sextant, and he is now a living transmitter of history. His story is complemented by Miguel’s, an architect who paced out the floor plans of the prisons he was interned in, to bear witness to the places of horror long since torn apart. Like a draftsman survivor of François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, Miguel recites his living testimony. A metaphor for Chile, he remembers while his Alzheimer’s afflicted wife Anita forgets.
But perhaps the most touching story is that of Victoria and Violeta, one of six women picking the desert apart with their bare hands, looking for remains of their loved ones. It’s a Sisyphean task, which only rarely bears fruit. But aided by archaeologists resident in the desert, advising them on how to spot broken ground, they continue their seemingly endless search for fragments of bone in the vast landscape. These women of Calama are a thorn in the government’s side, dredging up a past politicians would prefer to forget, uncovering and piecing together the past, with all its secrets and crimes. If only there was a telescope that could scour the earth for bones, Violeta sighs. Like astronomers, but without the peace to sleep at night. And it’s a metaphor supported by Guzmán’s montage, as bones turn into planet – pieces of calcium lost in the cosmos, on earth as in the heavens.
For now, these unburied, unidentified remains are kept hidden in storage. Perhaps one day they’ll be brought into the daylight again, given a proper burial, interred in a monument or exhibited in a museum. It’s a closure the women struggle to obtain, desperately hoping to piece their beloveds’ bodies back together bone by bone. And as Nostalgia For The Light returns full circle to the Hayde telescope, it’s not to closing hatches and engulfing darkness. Instead of a negative oblivion, the two women see the stars. And it’s a hope framed by Valentina, the last interviewee, an astronomer who was brought up by her grandparents after her parents disappeared. It’s a painful absence, like the death of a star. But thanks to the refracting lens of the galaxy, personal loss becomes part of the circle of life, death subsumed into existence, evolution and time.
With sublime footage of stars and the Milky Way, as well as a superimposed dust showers glinting over the film’s witnesses, Patricio Guzmán leads us through his labyrinth of threads as deftly as an Eisensteinian Ariadne. Astronomy, memory and history are weaved together in the Atacama Desert, its champions living in a tenuous backward-looking present as they uncover a shattered and nebulous past blown to smithereens. Chile’s problems might have the magnitude of dust in comparison with those of the universe, but like those glinting sparkles, they’re vast and fundamental. But it’s Guzmán’s own voice-over which intones the film’s ultimate message – “Memory has a gravity that attracts us; those with memory can live in the fragile present, while those who have none live nowhere.” It’s a poignant reflection on a nation blinded by Alzheimer’s. And like Nostalgia For The Light, a thought-provoking ray of light that lingers on well after the credits have rolled.
Nostalgia For The Light is released in the UK on 13th July 2012