Nostalgia for the Light

What could possibly connect a team of astronomers exploring the sky with the most powerful telescopes and a group of women searching for the remnants of their lost relatives in a vast and endless desert? In Nostalgia for the light (2010), a documentary by Chilean director Patricio Guzmán, proposed by Mariana on 10th November as part of Tuesday’s film screenings at the Ertegun House, offers both a poetic and a moving answer.

Patricio Guzmán’s documentary hinges on a permanent shift between two human experiences, both set in the Chilean desert of Atacama. The first experience introduces the scientific work of astronomers exploring constellations and trying to understand the origins of the cosmos. The second experience refers to a desperate but ongoing search by Chilean women, looking for the bodies of their relatives, executed during Pinochet’s dictatorship and believed to be buried in the Atacama Desert. Despite their visible difference, both experiences draw up various similarities and offer a common set of questions and reflections about past, memory and identity.

The documentary opens with the preparation of a telescope, and follows with a series of stunning and colourful views showing the surface of the moon, the far constellations and the infinite cosmos. The narrator’s voice evokes his love for astronomy and remembers Chile’s past, before the advent of Pinochet’s regime. One of the astronomers working in the Observatory of Atacama Desert explains that astronomy can be defined as a science concerned about the past, relentlessly bringing new questions and reinventing the limits of its knowledge. In a deeply moving account, a survivor from the Chacabuco concentration camp reveals that prisoners had the opportunity to study astronomy and learn how to identify constellations, finding in science a space of freedom and release from their condition. Another survivor details the way he could measure the ground and the cells, and later draw a plan of the camp. According to the narrator, both he and his wife – who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease – can be seen as a metaphor of the country: he remembers the past while she keeps forgetting.

In the Atacama Desert, while astronomers explore the far sky, seeking answers for the cosmos enigma, a group of women search for bones and body parts of their relatives. One of them explains with a great deal of emotion how she could retrieve and take home the foot of her brother. Another woman goes on to explain that the aim of her struggle is to find the whole body of her lost relative. While astronomers can work at peace, those women are haunted by the past and the pain of their loss. Building on a reflection by a young astronomer who lost her parents during the dark years of Pinochet’s regime, the documentary ends suggesting that humans, like the stars, are caught in a continuous cycle whereby energy is permanently reused but never lost.

“Those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moment. Those who have none don’t live anywhere.” : this final reflection underlines the importance of memory as a founding element in our lives. Identity is anchored in both the distressing past and the fleeting present. In Guzmán’s documentary, the sky and the desert can be seen as symbolic spaces which connect the present and the past, the quest and the pain, the human being and the memory. Beyond astronomers’ and Chilean women’s experiences, one could see in the documentary a metaphorical representation of the open quest for truth and meaning. How to understand and rewrite our past? How to live our present? How to soothe our pains? How to learn from our lives and how to transmit our lessons to the forthcoming generations? These are some of the questions raised in the background of the documentary. This nostalgia for the light is also nostalgia for a “transcendental” humanity, able to work out its history and reinvent values for its future. Nostalgia for the Light is also a film about human will and determination, an urgent call to awaken consciousness and stand firm in all circumstances. Like art and creation, life is a struggle which often stems from pain and blossoms with hope and commitment!

Khalid Lyamlahy