Article/ Nostalgia for the Light: Illuminating the Past

Nostalgia for the Light is one of the most visionary  documentaries in recent years

By Ian Haydn Smith

The present is an illusion that allows us to believe we control our lives. The moment we begin to think about it, it is consigned to the past. Or, as one astronomer in Patricio Guzmán’s sublime documentary puts it, “The present is a fine line… A puff of air would destroy it.” Nostalgia for the Light is a film about histories. They stretch from the recent past, back through millennia, to the start of time itself. Guzmán grew up wanting to be an astronomer, to study the distant past, which appears through a telescope as the present. In his childhood, time stood still; it was an irrelevance as life posed no significant change . Then the outside world ruptured this peaceable existence. The Pinochet regime destroyed lives and tore communities apart. Guzmán gave up his dream and instead became a filmmaker. In his remarkable 1978 film The Battle of Chile, the world saw the brutality of a ruthless dictatorship.

In the years since Pinochet’s rule, anger has transformed into reflection. Yet for many, with questions remaining and the bodies of loved ones still missing, grief lingers on. Many of the victims were buried in the Atacama Desert which has one of the driest climates on earth (it is the only area of the globe that appears brown from space) – so dry that instead of consuming the bodies of those buried there, the desert mummifies them. Archaeologists have similarly found, almost completely intact, the remains of unlucky nomads who have travelled through the region over one thousand years ago; they were the same people who marked their passage with engravings on rocks and cliff faces. These days, the only visitors to this area have one of two purposes in mind.

One group are the historians who search through the earliest remnants of the universe: the astronomers and archeologists, whose interest lies either in the heavens or deep beneath the earth. For both, “the past [here] is more accessible than elsewhere”. The lack of climate allows astronomers to look deep into space. The furthest celestial objects are rendered with acute clarity, revealing data about the origins of the universe that was all-but-unknown at the time of Pinochet’s rule. Moreover, a number of the dictator’s officers were wary of such knowledge. Luis, an imprisoned dissident, was interred at the regime’s largest concentration camp, Chacabuco, deep in the desert. Whilst there, a number of inmates were taught astronomy by a Dr. Alvarez. But lessons were cut short when those in charge feared the men would use the stars to navigate their escape from the desert.

The other group, whose peripatetic lives are spent trawling the vast swathes of desert, are the mothers, wives and sisters of the disappeared. Their loved ones’ remains may still be buried somewhere beneath the watchful lens of the observatories. At one point, one of the women wonders why, for all the technology we have developed, such powerful telescopes could not be used to find the bodies. “We would sweep the desert with a telescope”, she says, “and give thanks to the stars for helping us find them”.

An astronomer ponders, near the end of this beautiful, elegiac film, on the idea that, “in the glow of the night, the stars will observe us”. If they can, having witnessed our capacity for great progress, tarnished by acts of unspeakable evil, we should perhaps wonder how we will be judged.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas

Nostalgia for the Light screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 13 July. Book tickets here