The latest film from staunch political activist and prolific documentarian Patricio Guzman is a haunting story of the kind of loss that transcends generations. It’s a uniquely Chilean story but one also interwoven with salient perspectives that thoughtfully consider the bigger picture of our universe, a place that reduces us all in size but cannot exponentially reduce our suffering.
Nostalgia for the Light (2010) begins with poetic ruminations on the Chile of Guzman’s childhood – a time before Augusto Pinochet’s reign, when his country was blissfully detached from the world and remained a place where dreams could flourish. Then came the coup of 1973 and curiosity about space, the universe and forging unique paths was effectively crippled.
Much of the film’s emphasis is on Chile’s amazing Atacama desert. It’s a barren place devoid of humidity and home to an observatory where giant telescopes, with an unparalleled clarity of access to the skies, provide an educational window to the cosmos. And yet in other parts of the Atacama, remarkable stories from the past and present converge: there’s the chilling, surreal sight of a graveyard where the still clothed, desiccated remains of ancient Indian workers lay strewn amidst pitched wooden stakes.
Elsewhere, not far from the observatory, are the ruins of Chacabuco, site of the largest concentration camp from the years of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Thousands died during this evil reign but perversely, the bodies of the dead were randomly buried throughout the desert or deposited beyond the land and into the sea. As a consequence, the remains of loved ones have never been appropriated by relatives for religious services that might conclusively put these souls to rest.
Though Guzman’s film is mindful of contextualising via the ‘big picture’ – the stars, the boundless realms of space that observe these painful human dramas – it most tellingly reduces the scale of its collation of knowledge to intimate stories. Nostalgia for the Light is a compelling humanistic referral to both a specific nation and a universal place of reflection. It’s the gravitational pull of memory that keeps dragging us back to survey, to linger, to explore and to yearn for the perceived purity of the past, a place to which we would all like to return.
Guzman’s film poignantly lingers on the individual stories of tortured mothers still scouring the desert’s almost limitless expanses for even the most meagre evidence – something tangible to which they can cling and put their consciences to sleep. These heart-breaking tales of anguish, of ordinary people putting their lives on hold to search for the broken off pinhead in a haystack, facing insurmountable odds just to verify lives, amounts to a terrifying Chilean ghost story that will forever haunt this nation.