A Puff of Air Would Destroy It
Wheels turn. Mechanical teeth click. The camera passes closely over each moment in the process by which an observatory dome opens. As Patricio Guzmán describes the “old German telescope that I’ve seen once again after so many years,” the scene cuts to a series of items, each appearing briefly on screen. A napkin folded on a plate, an old radio, a chair. “These objects,” he says, “which could have come from my childhood home, remind me of that far off moment.” That is, the moment when he was a boy and “Chile was a haven of peace, isolated from the world.”
This opening sequence in Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia de la luz) sets in motion a number of themes. The Chile of Guzmán’s childhood is long gone, of course, a collective history he’s explored in other ways in other films. The look at the “objects which could have come” from his personal history suggests the way that memory is at once allusive and illusory. These objects, cast in half-light and half-shadow, are lovely in their simplicity and also weighted with potential meaning, different for each viewer. As such, as plain as they seem, the objects as images—as memories—are also subjective and shifting, alternately recognized and repressed.
The documentary, which opens 18 March at New York’s IFC Center and is also screening as part of “Obstinate Memories: The Documentaries of Patricio Guzmán” at BAMcinématek, 1-8 April, goes on to explore just this sort of instability. It takes up two searches, both set in Chile’s Atacama Desert. One is a pursuit of scientific knowledge, the evidence to support theories of how life began and what might be coming for the planet earth; it’s conducted by astronomers via the world’s largest optical telescope (called the European Extremely Large Telescope, or E-ELT) located in Atacama. The other, ongoing since 1990, is undertaken by the relatives of victims of August Pinochet’s dictatorship: they seek their loved ones’ bodies, and an understanding of how they died. Both searches, the film points out, involve bodies, material and celestial, and both are endless.
As he conducts his search, astronomer Gaspar Galaz lovingly describes the “nature of science” as a perpetual lack of resolution. “You try to answer two questions,” he smiles, and “four more arise.” He goes on to think through the nature of time, or rather, the impossibility of the present. “Everything we perceive is in the past, even if it’s a matter of a millionth of a second,” he explains, as the light reflected by a camera lens or an eye can only be perceived late, as “It takes a moment to reach me.” Ah, sees Guzmán from off-screen, “The present is a fine line?” Galaz nods, “A puff of air would destroy it.”
This line is made both less and more fine if considered in precisely these terms—the present is past and so, the past is ever present. And this is the idea pursued by astronomers (who look for light that has traveled millions of years to reach their telescope) as well as by archeologists, who look into the desert for other sorts of evidence. If Galaz’s own past is recent (he was born after the Pinochet regime), the archeologist Lautaro Núñez is older, so his description of the past is more more vividly physical. He says that Atacama, located over 10,000 feet above sea level, is the ideal place for his work. The dryness and salt preserve matter, he says, so “the past is more accessible here than anywhere else.” The scene shows such matter—shoes, skulls, tools—as Guzmán notes just some of those individuals lost to the desert: “In the open air lie men who died working, like geological layers of miners and Indians swept by the relentless wind. There are the nomadic families, their belongings, their memories, are nearby.”
Over images of drawings yet preserved on rocks amid red desert sands, Núñez points out that Chile (like so many modern nations) represses its past (“We have never acknowledged that we marginalized our Indians, it’s practically a state secret”), the film looks also to a more recent past. Former prisoners of the Pinochet regime—the architect Miguel and the amateur astronomer Luís—recall their time inside tiny cells at the abandoned 19th-century saltpeter-mining town of Chacabuco. In these structures refitted with barbed wire and armed guards, Miguel measured his space and time by steps, planning to replicate the place in drawings if he survived. And Luís maintained his freedom by looking at stars, reflected light from a past cosmos. “Luís’ dignity lies in his memory,” observes Guzmán, “Luís is a transmitter of history.”
So too are the women who scavenge the desert in search of their loved ones’ remains. Told that the Pinochet military buried bodies, then dug them up again and threw them into the sea, 70-year-old Victoria can’t believe it. “What if they threw them out nearby, somewhere in the mountains?” she asks. “I find it hard to believe what I’m told. They taught me not to believe.” And so, she will search as long as she can, “even if I have doubts and I ask myself questions which I can’t answer.” Even as her persistence echoes that voiced by Galaz the astronomer, the film insists too on their existential disparity. Galaz voices it like so: “Their process is similar to ours, with one big difference. We can sleep peacefully.”
The search for the past, which is also inevitably the present, is profoundly disturbing. And yet, Nostalgia for the Light submits, that search must go on. Even as it begins with this premise, the film also builds toward it, so that your comprehension of its many facets feels like a revelation. The poetic, haunting shots into night skies and star fields, over desert sands and petrified fish, and deep inside skulls’ eye sockets all help you to appreciate the many ways that light shapes what you see.
If these images look similarly limitless, they are also differently resonant. Bodies of all kinds exist in cycles, as the astronomer Valentina Rodríguez explains. At the same time, past and present, she is also the daughter of two of the disappeared. “What happened to my parents and their absence takes on another dimension” when she studies the stars, she says. “It takes on another meaning and frees me a little from this great suffering, as I feel nothing really comes to an end.”