Nostalgia for the Light
A Documentary Film by Patricio Guzman
In the summer of 2011, the daring rescue of a group of trapped Chilean miners brought the Atacama Desert region to the world's attention. However, the region has long been known to Chileans for its mineral riches and its crystal-dear skies perfect for stargazing, and it is indelibly and painfully linked to Chilean history. In "Nostalgia for the Light," Patricio Guzman documents the effort of Chilean citizens to come to grips with their shared history some 20 years after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship. Guzman weaves together the words and experiences of nine Chileans, all linked by their shared love of astronomy and their ties to the Atacama Desert. All were also directly or indirectly affected by the regime. Their stories recount the pain and loss Chileans endured following the 1973 coup d'etat, and the society's struggle to heal from its trauma. However, the film remains hopeful throughout. It is a powerful example of ethical behavior in action.
"Nostalgia for the Light" is a 90-minute Spanish-language film with English subtitles. Produced by Renate Sachse for Atacama Productions (France) and released by Icarus Films, its theatrical release was March 17, 2011, and its DVD release was September 1,2011. It is the fifth documentary by Patricio Guzman, a former television news reporter turned filmmaker. Like Guzman's prior films, "the Battle of Chile" (1978), "Chile, Obstinate Memory" (1997), "The Pinochet Case" (2001), and "Allende" (2004), "Nostalgia for the Light" is concerned with the events of September 11, 1973, when the Chilean military under the command of General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. While the earlier films focus on events surrounding the coup, "Nostalgia for the Light" is set in present-day Chile. It uses the Atacama, with its various links to pre-Colombian settlement, 19th-Century mining, post-coup concentration camps, and modern-day observatories, as the backdrop for the story.
"Nostalgia for the Light" is a documentary. It uses the personal histories of nine Chileans to describe the larger society's response to the individual and collective trauma of the coup and the subsequent dictatorship. It incorporates interviews with the primary subjects and intersperses archival film, photographs and telescope images. The camerawork features intimate interior interview scenes, sweeping panoramic shots of the desolately beautiful Atacama landscape, and stunning celestial images. The interviews present the subjects speaking in their own voices, conversing with Guzman. Most other scenes feature ambient sounds (whistling wind or footsteps treading sand) or Guzman's narration. Only the gorgeous images of the moon and stars are accompanied by music, which serves to heighten their grandeur and other-worldliness.
The film evolves as a series of thematic chapters, each with a mix of vignette interviews and narrated scenes. Although not explicitly noted in the theatrical release, the themes serve as chapter titles for the DVD. The first, "Childhood," opens with the sights and sounds of a large mechanical device stirring to life. We hear the echoing whir of motors and meshing gears, and we see shiny brass components flashing by in some predetermined choreography. The camera pans back to reveal a large 19th-century German telescope that seems at once state-of-the-art and quaint. When the telescope locks into position, the film cuts to a series of finely detailed lunar images, backed by a soaring musical score. Next, the scene cuts to Guzman's boyhood home in Chile. It is a time capsule in dappled sunlight. Guzman recounts his happy childhood, and the image fades to dust. It is a symbolic end of innocence in Chile.
In "The Origin," as the dust settles, Guzman poetically states, "Astronomers fell in love with Atacama and built telescopes enveloped by stardust." The scene shifts to the Atacama Desert. Guzman likens the rugged, beautiful landscape to...