Nostalgia for the Light

Patricio Guzmán’s latest film finally reaches London at a DocHouse screening on 2nd February.

The Atacama desert in the north of Chile—the location for Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia de la luz (Nostalgia for the Light)—is one the driest places on earth, where astronomers have located optical and radio telescopes to take advantage of the extraordinarily clear air, the zero humidity and almost total lack of clouds, and an absence of light pollution and radio interference from nearby cities. In the film’s opening scenes, Guzmán’s gentle voice tells us how he became attracted to the region as a consequence of his boyhood fascination with astronomy and enthusiasm for Jules Verne—the subject of a film he made for French television a few years ago (Mon Jules Verne, 2005)—and he now waxes lyrical over the magnificence of the Atacama skies, where an extraordinary number of stars and constellations can be seen even by the naked eye. The first film that Guzmán has shot in HD, the pellucid light of the film’s title, and the bleak expanses of the extraordinary landscape, are beautifully captured in the limpid cinematography of Katell Djian. The soundtrack too is permeated by the landscape, full of silences and reticent touches of music by the Chilean musicians Miranda and Tobar.  

Darwin was there in 1835. Landing in Iquique, then a small port of about a thousand inhabitants, he wrote that ‘This was the first true desert which I had seen’, adding that if he was not particularly impressed by it, this was ‘owing to my having become gradually accustomed to such scenes’ as the Beagle sailed north from Valparaiso. Iquique was then in Peru. Forty-forty years later, it was taken by the Chilean navy in the opening salvos of the War of the Pacific. There is a curious connection here with the prehistory of cinema. The territory won by Chile was rich in minerals, especially the sodium nitrate needed by the growing chemical industries in Europe and the USA. In fact it was one of the crucial ingredients in a newly invented substance called celluloid. 

The US Secretary of State on duty said that ‘One shouldn’t speak of a Chilean-Peruvian War, but rather of an English war against Peru with Chile as an instrument.’ Within a few years the British had direct control over the nitrate mines, and the industry grew apace. So did trouble. In 1907, the Chilean army opened fire on a protest by thousands of miners and their families against their miserable conditions; the death toll may have been as many as two thousand. The incident is recounted in Santa María de Iquique, a documentary of 1971 by Claudio Sapiaín, a year after the folk group Quilapayún recorded an album on the subject, a kind of folk cantata. The War of the Pacific was portrayed a couple of years earlier in Helvio Soto’s Caliche Sangriento (‘Bloody Saltpetre’), and in 1976, Miguel Littin, working in exile in Mexico, made Actas de Marusia (‘Letters from Marusia’), about another massacre in another British-owned nitrate mine.

Guzmán, who was also exiled by the coup of 1973 which brought General Pinochet to power, follows in this tradition of radical historical recuperation, which has always been a crucial current within independent cinema in Latin America, with its imperative to tell the little known stories of the humble and oppressed. Or in this case, to evoke the lost and irretrievable prehistorical. With the aid of an archeologist, we learn that if the climate of the Atacama makes living there a harsh experience, it also makes a natural way to preserve things. Without moisture nothing rots, and everything turns into artefacts, including the remains of humans and animals. The Atacama has yielded the oldest mummies known, dating back 20,000 years, and there are also ancient geoglyphs, beautifully preserved, similar to those further north at Nasca. They are, like the stars, objects of special wonder, just as distant and just as mysterious. 

There is also a third strand. The decline of nitrate mining which followed the invention of synthetic chemicals (including the replacement of celluloid by acetate) left the Atacama pockmarked with some 170 derelict mining towns, and the landscape deeply scarred by abandoned mines, more barren than it otherwise would be. After 11 September 1973, one of them, Chacabuco, was turned into a concentration camp, where the Chilean military had to do little more than erect barbed wire around the existing rows of huts. But this was no ordinary concentration camp, so to speak, and we discover that survivors have a kind of contradictory nostalgia for their experience, because the place itself was so luminous, elemental, wondrous.

Conjoining the ruminations of the film-maker with those of astronomers, archeologists, and survivors of neofascist repression, Nostalgia for the Light continues the work of mourning that Guzmán has pursued across several key films over three decades, in which he has persistently come back to the trauma of the dictatorship from a series of different, complementary and evolving angles. In fact, Guzmán’s work is the epitome of what film scholars like Hamid Naficy have called diasporic cinema, or at least one of its main strands, that of political exile. He first came to international attention with his trilogy, La batalla de Chile (The Battle of Chile), which appeared between 1976 and 1979. Guzmán and his team had been filming the political process in Chile since Allende’s Popular Unity government took office in 1970. Their intention, when they started shooting what became La batalla de Chile early in 1973 (supported by Chris Marker sending them film stock from France) was to go beyond the chronicle of events in their previous films and try to analyse the intensifying process of political polarisation which was being played out increasingly on the streets. The result, a fertile mixture of direct cinema, investigative reportage and political analysis, the footage was smuggled out immediately after the coup and edited in Cuba.

La batalla de Chile was not yet a work of mourning, but of historical testimony, almost unique in the annals of documentary for its scope, agility, intensity and poignancy. It was only after Guzmán came to Europe following a disappointing venture into fiction, that he was able to establish enough distance to begin taking stock and rediscover himself as a film-maker in new surroundings. For the political exile is not only, as Brecht once put it, the bringer of bad news, but a person dislocated, part of their identity held in suspension. They are disoriented, split between two places, one real and one imaginary, which have swapped places: the homeland has become imaginary, the previously imaginary foreign country has become the immediate reality. The film-maker who carries the now imaginary homeland with him in the vivid form of strips of celluloid (or rather, acetate) is perhaps in an even more peculiar condition, for how can he rid himself of the melancholia that these images inevitably invoke?

There are many ways for the exile to try and deal with the trauma of loss and separation, and it’s insidious to try and judge between them. Guzmán’s solution has been to stubbornly try and remain what he is, and not to shirk the identity of the displaced Latin American artist or intellectual who is forced to be an exotic but cosmopolitan outsider. For some exiled Chilean film-makers—and there was an extraordinarily large number of them—this meant turning the camera on the condition of exile. For Guzmán, it has meant making films about Latin America, and when the political relaxation in Chile allowed, to return with his camera to try and reconnect with the source of the trauma. The first breakthrough was En nombre de Dios (In the Name of God), made in 1985, which reports on the creation of the ‘Vicarage of Solidarity’, through which the Catholic Church in Chile provided protection for teams of social workers and lawyers to defend the imprisoned in the courts, and look for the bodies of the disappeared. 

But he also had to deal with the fact that he was now seeing his homeland with the eyes of the  quasi-outsider he had now become, and when he returns a dozen years later to make Chile, la memoria obstinada (Chile, The Obstinate Memory, 1997) he stages a personal confrontation with his own melancholic imaginary, only to discover that it isn’t only his, because the country has been cast by the whole experience of neofascist repression into a condition of official amnesia, or what the Chilean philosopher Patricio Marchant has called ‘loss of speech’. One result was that La batalla de Chile had never yet been publicly seen there. Now he revisits some of the locations where it was filmed and finds some of its characters, and then he screens it for them, along with a small audience of students. The occasion becomes a painful revisitation of the past for those who remember and an emotionally wrenching revelation to the younger generation kept in ignorance of what had happened.

Chile, la memoria obstinada carries a first person narration which allows Guzmán to speak from his own displaced position at the same time as introducing the stories of the others; in this way, his films become autobiographical without being self-centred. Two years later, pursuing the autobiographical, comes a short film called La isla de Robinson Crusoe (Robinson Crusoe Island, 1999) in which he visits the Chilean Island named after Defoe’s classic novel. This is not a film of mourning, but still part of his journey of rediscovery, all the more personal because here, liberated by digital video from the old constraints and conventions of the documentary metier, the camera as well as the speaking voice is his own. Like Mon Jules Verne, the inspiration for the film is literary and takes him back to his childhood, a time of innocence outside history. He discovers that there is no way back, and you can’t escape history, it’s always there waiting for you.

Now fully equipped to confront the demon directly, the chance comes when Pinochet was detained in London in 1998 on an extradition charge, accused of genocide, terrorism and torture, and held under house arrest for almost eighteen months. In El caso Pinochet (The Pinochet Case, 2001), Guzmán pursues the dictator through the words of women victims of his terror who are able for the first time in 25 years to be received and heard by a judge, the Spanish prosecutor Baltasar Garzón, who issued the extradition warrant.  

As if to right the balance, he then turns his attention back to the man whom Pinochet ousted, with Salvador Allende (2004). After the nightmare, the memory of the dream. This is no hagiography, however, but again a highly individual first-person film. ‘A country without documentary films is like a family without a photo album,’ Guzmán has said, and here, beginning with an Allende family album that an elderly relative kept hidden during the repression, he assembles an album to be shared with us all, of tattered images and tattered memories, the reminiscences of Allende’s family and old comrades—ironically set against an interview in which the US ambassador to Chile during the Popular Unity government spills the beans—which returns to us not just the personality of the overthrown president but the idealism, aspirations and popular legitimacy that he represented. 

Now, in Nostalgia de la luz, he takes another journey into the space of amnesia that is the history of Chile. Chile is a country haunted by the spectre of justice, but here, drawing back from proximity to historical events and figures, the tone is a kind of melancholia—which unlike the work of mourning, can never be brought even near to completion—a serene and poetic melancholy grounded in intellectual reflection, neither maudlin nor quietist, but earthly and celestial at the same time, which renounces the fiction of human mastery without repudiating the utopian dream of social justice here under the sun.





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