“I am convinced that memory has a gravitational force. It is constantly attracting us. Those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moment. Those who have none don’t live anywhere. Each night, slowly, impassively, the centre of the galaxy passes over Santiago.”
‘Nostalgia for the Light’, directed by Patricio Guzmán in 2010, is a Chilean documentary that explores the disappearances during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship through the lens of astronomy and archaeology in the Atacama Desert. It’s a moving and profound piece of work that drills down into a national tragedy in a way that exposes the tendency of a country like Chile to bury its past. The connections between the three elements are surprising, but make perfect sense as the film unfolds. The quest of astronomers to look into the past of the universe using giant telescopes incongruously sited in the desert is contrasted with the quest of archaeologists to chart the carvings and desiccated remains of indigenous people again in the desert. The dry, airless environment, perfect for seeing the stars is also perfect for preserving the past, but between these two disciplines, women scours the arid landscape searching for the remains of the disappeared, the political opponents of Pinochet who vanished. Guzmán unravels a complex skein of themes including memory, grief, loss and the desire to discover, and in doing so, he highlights a national tragedy: not just the disappearances, but the ability of the country to forget and move on from the dictatorship without resolution. The astronomy and archaeology gives the film, not only a dizzying thematic balance but also a beautiful look. The shots of stars, galaxies and the lunar surface are contrasted with close-up shots of the surface of the desert, of pebbles, sand and rocky outcrops. The fractal way Guzmán uses the landscape is reminiscent of ‘Koyaanisqatsi’, but unlike the American documentary, the real power of ‘Nostalgia for the Light’ comes from the interviews with the scientists, widows and children of the disappeared.
Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s tempting to suggest a double-bill with ‘Koyaanisqatsi’, but instead I’d recommend watching it on its own to get the full impact. And then I’d recommend asking why Pinochet was so admired in 1980s Britain.