Surveyor of a Desert Where the Past and Present Coexist
By LARRY ROHTER
Published: March 16, 2011
The Atacama Desert of northern
is the driest place in the world and surely one of the most desolate. But it has always proved fertile ground for the Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, who first filmed there 40 years ago and has now returned to make “Nostalgia for the Light,” a meditation on astronomy, archeology, geology and human rights. Chile
Loic Venance/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“The Atacama is where many elements of our past are concentrated and conserved,” Mr. Guzman, 69, said in an interview last month in
. “Not just the past of Manhattan , but of the Earth and even the galaxy. I’d been wanting for the longest time to make a film that brought all of this together, but the hardest part was that those four worlds are parallel lines.” Chile
What finally enabled Mr. Guzmán to make “Nostalgia for the Light,” which opens on Friday at the
IFC Center in Greenwich Village, was his realization that the subjects he wanted to address did have a point in common: the preservation of memory. The women who comb the desert looking for the remains of loved ones who disappeared under the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet share that trait with the archaeologists and geologists who work in the shadow of the astronomical observatories that dot the Atacama, drawn by its clear skies.
Remembrance has, of course, also been the main theme of Mr. Guzmán’s own body of work, which has been primarily political. But his best-known film, the three-part, four-and-a-half-hour “Battle of Chile,” has come to be regarded as something more than just the record of a particular historical moment.
“The way in which Guzmán understands that historical consciousness is elusive and impossible to fix is one of the most vital contributions he has made, and it all begins with ‘Battle of Chile,’ ” said Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archive, which last month organized “History, Memory, Cinema,” a retrospective of Mr. Guzmán’s work. “Like Claude Lanzmann he is interested not just in the past but the past in the present, how the past continues to live and shapes the present moment in ways we may not be aware of.”
Beginning April 1 BAMcinématek, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, will also sponsor a retrospective of Mr. Guzmán’s work, called “Obstinate Memories: The Documentaries of Patricio Guzman.” That weeklong event will include two showings of “Nostalgia for the Light” as well as “Battle of Chile,” which Florence Almozini, BAMcinématek’s program director and chief curator, calls “a masterpiece of documentary film, perfect in a way.” The program will also feature Mr. Guzmán’s later films about Salvador Allende and General Pinochet.
“I find his films to be not just informative but extremely hypnotic and mesmerizing, so a retrospective is long overdue,” Ms. Almozini said. “He definitely has a strong point of view politically. But he also has an artistic vision and an aesthetic, so you get both beauty and relevance.”
In some respects “Nostalgia for the Light” represents a return to Mr. Guzmán’s origins. As Mr. Guest noted, “his first steps as an artist were as a writer of science fiction, which gives him a certain visionary quality and an acute understanding of paradox.” In the interview Mr. Guzmán himself recalled a childhood in
in which he read Jules Verne and monitored the night sky, memorizing the Southern Hemisphere constellations. Santiago
Today, at his home in
, he also has a small telescope and a collection of books about astronomy. It was one of those books, a dense text by the French astrophysicist Michel Cassé that Mr. Guzmán described as “full of theorizing, with many equations,” that provided the film’s evocative title. Paris
“I think that in this film I felt more free,” Mr. Guzmán said. “In treating the desert and the cosmos, I found more possibilities for metaphors and for metaphysical, philosophical reflection. I was faced with a horizon that allowed me to develop a kind of poetry that I’ve always had in me but have never had a chance to show.”
At one juncture in “Nostalgia for the Light,” for instance, Mr. Guzmán’s camera moves between NASA photographs of asteroids in space and shots of bone fragments of victims of Pinochet who remain unidentified. Up close the two are indistinguishable, underlying his notion of the cosmos as a unified whole comprising “the same material.”
Mr. Guzmán began making films relatively late: after studying history and philosophy in
Chile he graduated from film school in in 1970, at 29. His return to Madrid shortly thereafter coincided with the start of the Allende government’s socialist experiment, which immediately became his focus, and remains so. Chile
“We first met during the Allende period, when I would come across him lugging a camera and a very small crew,” recalled the Chilean novelist and playwright Ariel Dorfman, who now teaches at Duke University. “He was always popping up wherever there was trouble. He went to the places which were most dangerous, but also to those not on the radar, where you wouldn’t expect anyone to show up. He was always willing to take risks in that direction.”
The area where Mr. Guzmán shot “Nostalgia for the Light” is barely 50 miles from the site of the mine accident and subsequent rescue of 33 miners that captivated the world’s attention last year. He filmed there extensively during the Allende era and incorporated footage of abandoned mining camps into “Nostalgia for the Light,” so he was not amused by what he viewed as the grandstanding of President Sebastián Piñera, which he said distracted attention from the real issues.
“Work conditions haven’t improved; there’s still no protection,” he said. “The rescue became a media show, but the real story will only come out in five years or so. Will the miners have been paid an indemnity? Will their quality of life have improved? Will there be a stronger law so that mines cannot be opened without an escape tunnel? Will they have medical care and social security, or will they still be living in poverty?”
Mr. Guzmán’s own relationship with his homeland, which he left after being imprisoned during the 1973 American-supported coup that overthrew Allende, remains complicated and ambiguous. As he notes, he has now “lived more time outside
than in it.” But he also remains profoundly connected by remembrances that he cannot — and does not want to — discard. Chile
“I believe that each of us carries a mental knapsack, in which we store the memory of our parents, our first communion, the first day at school, graduation day, perhaps the death of those parents, the first girlfriend,” he said. “That never leaves. It’s stuck to us. So it really doesn’t matter where you are.”
A version of this article appeared in print on March 17, 2011, on page C1 of the
edition. New York
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“Nostalgia for the Light: A Stark, Ravishing Plea for Remembrance”
Nostalgia for the LightChile’s self-appointed, one-man Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Patricio Guzmán has devoted the past four decades to chronicling the short-lived Allende administration and the Pinochet dark ages that followed, long after his countrymen wanted him to stop. At first blush, though, his new documentary detours toward astronomy, landing rather Herzog-ishly in the Atacama Desert, the elevation and absolute dryness of which make it one of the globe’s optimal observatory locations. Guzmán uses the stars’ distance to ruminate on the nature of time—as in, everything, even light, even this, is in the past. He eventually winds his way around to how time has treated the ghost-town-turned-concentration-camp of Chacabuco, its ex-prisoners, the dumped bones of disappeared Pinochet victims, and the tough, striking old women who still scour the desert plateau on foot hunting for remains. Guzmán fugue-weaves all over the place, montage-cutting from the lunar surface to giant close-ups of calcified bone, and the film’s philosophical musings slowly funnel down into a silent yowl of rage and a desperate plea for remembrance. (If Guzmán is to be believed, Chileans have an even stronger urge to forget than Americans do.) Often stark and ravishing, Nostalgia for the Lightis most moving as a manifestation of the filmmaker’s stubborn righteousness.
Directed by Patricio Guzmán
Opens March 18,
Directed by Patricio Guzmán
Opens March 18,
See Michael Atkinson’s review in InThese Times (May 2011), which reports on Guzman’s five films that focus on the theme of Allende, his overthrow by the Nixon Admin., the CIA, and General Pinochet, and the Pinochet dictatorship, torture, disappearances, murders, and embrace of neo-liberal economics.. Particularly see his first in the series, THE BATTLE CRY (1975-79), on the “homicidal autocracy” of the Pinochet regime, 4 hours: the ascension of Allende and the “subsequent CIA-fueled coup that bloodied the streets.” “The film is a scalding lesson in orchestrated class disaster and power-mad malice that should be required viewing for high schoolers everywhere.” D