Nostalgia de la luz (2010)
Patricio Guzmán’s 2010 documentary film, Nostalgia de la luz, focuses on two seemingly unrelated subjects: astronomy, and the search for the human remains of those who “disappeared” by Pinochet’s dictatorship in the Chilean Atacama Desert. The film combines an unusual mix of archival images, telescopic photographs of celestial bodies, interviews with historians, astronomers, former political prisoners (and their families), and scenes of women searching for the remains of loved ones in the Atacama Desert. As the film unfolds, parallels between the main subjects begin to emerge. Through Guzmán’s narration and personal testimonies, astronomers, historians, and the survivors and their families stand united in their impossible search for the past, and in the difficulty of remaining in the present without obtaining sufficient answers or remembrances.
|Language||Spanish, English (OV)|
|Production||Renate Sachse, Atacama Productions|
|Music||Miguel Miranda, José Miguel Tobar|
|Information and Trailer||IMDb|
Cosmic Metaphor and Audiovisual Elements
In the film, astronomy and the quest for the origins of the universe – understanding the birth and passing of celestial bodies – function as a metaphor for personal and collective memories of Chile’s recent history. This metaphor encompasses history from the 19th century’s brutal exploitation of indigenous people and mine workers to the Pinochet dictatorship, as well as the efforts to understand events that have been largely erased by those who perpetrated that exploitation. The metaphor plays out over the course of the documentary in the form of thematic and audio-visual parallels. Images of galaxies cut to images of Guzmán’s childhood home, then to close-ups of mummified bodies resembling desert dunes due to their sand-like texture, while Guzmán explains that bones and stars are both comprised of the same matter: calcium. Music is applied over telescopic photographs and through moments recounting the horrors of the dictatorship, while showers of golden particles are superimposed over faces of survivors and their relatives – a stylistic choice that connects those who search for the past and bear memory to the cosmic. For scientists and survivors alike, the Atacama Desert figures as an archive, conserving and offering fragments of celestial and human histories within its dry ground and under its clear skies. These parallels culminate in an emotionally moving scene towards the end of the film in which the women who search the desert meet one of the interviewed astronomers, who invites them to look through telescopes.
As I prepared to rewatch this film to have it fresh in mind before writing this contribution, I asked a friend who had watched it recently for his impression. He replied that he had liked the film, but that it was difficult to watch at times due to the graphic violence and heavy subject matter. I was surprised by his answer – my somewhat hazy recollection of Nostalgia de la luz was that it was, first and foremost, a beautiful film. The stunning photographs of the Atacama Desert with its clear skies, and the narrator’s soothing meditations on the impossibility of the present time had stayed with me far more than the retellings of torture, imprisonment, murder, and the resulting trauma. If I thought actively about the film, I could remember the latter, but that seemed to be a secondary impression for me. My recent viewing confirmed this impression: while graphic violence and images of death are central to the film, I still found myself more struck by the natural beauty of the Atacama Desert. When the screen turned black signifying the end of the film, I was deeply moved but felt a great sense of calm. It was very different from the feeling of despair that I normally experience when learning about mass organised violence at museums, through readings, or watching other documentaries. My response to the film is, of course, a highly subjective one. Considering that I have witnessed a great deal of media coverage focusing on some of the grimmest atrocities of the 20th century, I do wonder if perhaps I have become somewhat desensitised to depictions of violence. However, I do not feel that I have become numb to these survivor testimonies. While the shock and surprise at the extent of human violence is perhaps less than when I first encountered such media sources, the despair is still reawakened. If anything, it grows with every new story.
Poetry and Aesthetics
Nostalgia de la luz deliberately adopts a poetic and meditative tone through photographs, music, and spoken word, which gives the documentary a distinctly aesthetic quality. Thinking of my friend’s comments and my own impressions, I briefly wondered if these stylistic choices were appropriate for a work confronting the horrors of the Pinochet regime. Did the poetry and philosophical musings incorrectly euphemise the violence and the pain suffered from by the film’s subjects? Did placing the experiences of murdered political opponents and survivors within cosmic meditations minimize them, relegating them to insignificant specks in an infinite universe? On the contrary, I believe that the film stands in solidarity with its subjects and attends to their experiences with empathy while refraining from glossing over the darkest aspects of history. The camera films in an honest way, without sensationalizing the subjects, and the film’s parallels with the cosmic serve as a cinematic method of tackling the mysterious and unsolvable. The film’s beauty lies in staying true to particular historical experiences and elevating them to universal reflections about memory, meaning, and knowledge-seeking, without detracting from their specificity or importance. In doing so, Nostalgia de la luz bestows dignity upon survivors. Women who have been mocked or considered irrational are honoured as astronomers or archaeologists, as forms of the human longing for answers. In a particularly striking scene, an interviewed astronomer states that society should have more understanding for these women than for his own work. He explains that their work is more difficult and brave because, unlike them, he can sleep well at the end of the day. The poetic and metaphorical approach of the film has less shock-value than other documentaries featuring crimes against humanity, but it is no less moving. Nostalgia de la luz invites reflections regarding knowledge, healing, and the role of memory in the political present, even beyond the Chilean context.
What about “the facts”?
There is one notable inconvenience of this stylistic approach, which is that it does little to elucidate the events of the Pinochet dictatorship. At the beginning of the film, Guzmán rather naively describes a version of Chile he remembers from his childhood as being a peaceful haven, protected from the turmoil of the world until a democratic revolution occurred, followed by a violent military dictatorship. For viewers seeking a detailed and strictly informative account of this sequence, Nostalgia de la luz is not the best representation of these events. However, this is arguably not a failing on behalf of the documentary, because Nostalgia de la luz is purposefully less interested in delivering a history lecture than it is in exploring the intricacies of memory, the process of forgetting, and their significance for present-day societies. The film does not claim to provide clarity on past events, but rather acknowledges what cannot be retrieved, remembered, or understood, and invites the viewer to reflect. After all, no matter how extensively scholars investigate, there remains something inherently mysterious at the heart of violence. The mechanics and patterns of violence can be observed and described, but the question of what drives a society to committing collective murder is altogether more complex and cannot be readily answered. As noted by one of the interviewed astronomers, this documentary, much like science, raises four new questions for every question that is answered. One can interpret this as a weakness of the film, or as the precise point of Nostalgia de la luz.
Combining two seemingly unrelated topics in a poetically and visually stunning documentary is not only unique but also a demonstration of what a documentary is capable of. As a result, Patricio Guzmán has created one of my all time favourite films that still fascinates me years later. The question remains: what can we learn from this documentary and apply it to our own?
First of all, we shouldn’t shy away from using audio-visual elements that might seem unusual. Of course in the context of our documentary we always have to make sure that it is relevant and the meaning has to be explained, just like Guzmán does. These on first sight seemingly unrelated images create curiosity and keep the viewers interested. However, it requires a lot of skills to find these kind of images and connections and there is no guarantee that we will actually come up with a useful metaphor. An easy image to fall back on for us, is that of the three pillars.
A second thing we can learn from this documentary focuses on the way Guzmán creates emotional reactions within the audience. The way the documentary adopts a poetic and meditative tone through photography, music, and spoken words, teaches us a lot about how certain stylistic choices affect the overall mood. We therefore have to make the decision for our documentary, which kind of emotion we would like to create in a certain moment, and then attune all the components of that scene to create this intended feeling. Something we have to consider, nevertheless, is the possibility that different emotions are created in each audience member, as my friend and I have demonstrated. However, even though the documentary created different emotional reactions in both of us, it also left lasting impressions.
In contrast, we do have to make sure that our documentary is fact-based and presents more information that go beyond the simple emotional value. As historians, we have to make sure to emphasize the informative aspects of a documentary and not just focus on too many emotions and poetry. In conclusion, combining the methodological strengths of this documentary with a more facts-based approach, will make our own documentary memorable and we shouldn’t shy away from taking stylistic risks, if these are well thought out.