Nostalgia for the Light has been one of the most talked about documentaries at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It pairs some very unlikely subjects. After all, what do Chilean astronomers, archeologists studying human remains, and women, searching the desert for the bodies of loved ones killed concentration camps, have in common on the surface? Nothing it seems. But Patricio Guzmán’s poetic film makes a human connection between them all in an incredibly moving way.
The setting is the Atacama Desert in South America. It’s covers over 40,000 square miles, lies at an elevation around 7,000 feet above sea level, and is widely recognized as the driest place on the planet. The altitude, the dry area, the elevation, and the non-existent cloud cover make it a perfect place to study the sky. Guzmán spends the opening of the film discussing his childhood interest in astronomy, and interviewing the scientists that spend so much time looking into the sky.
Guzmán’s enthusiasm is obvious, and his narration is both informative and passionate, and brilliantly scripted. It’s clear that he has something else in mind with this documentary from the images he shows frequently. Images of nebuli, constellations and other galaxies (images captured by the astronomical observatories in the Atacama) are abundant, but they lack explanation through narration, or other means. They are beautiful, but they are not the point.
The desert also hides many of Chile’s secrets and history. Ancient burials site of pre-Columbian people are plentiful, and remarkably preserved. Because there is no humidity, plants, animals or water, and the fact the ground is so salty, bodies are mummified without effort. Burial clothes are also often preserved, exhibiting remarkably brilliant color for being thousands of years old.
During Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, thousands of nationals were arrested and incarcerated as political prisoners. Atacama served as the perfect place to have a concentration camp. Pre-existing, abandoned houses of the once booming mining industry served perfectly as the foundation. All the military had to do was to add barbed wire. After being executed, many of these prisoners were buried in mass graves in the Atacama.
Mass graves were moved by digging the bodies up with machines sometimes, so human bone fragments literally litter the surface of the ground. Groups of surviving family members mostly women still brought to tears by discussing the events of the past, still comb the desert, hoping to find the bodies of those passed. They hope to finally put them to rest, and get the closure they’ve been searching for for over thirty years. One woman found only her brother’s foot, which she recognized by the shoe and sock it was still covered in.
The contrast between such celestial matters with more terrestrial powerfully concludes for the audience the importance of looking to the future, but more so the danger of forgetting the past. A too narrow reading may assume Guzmán’s film is speaking specifically about Chile’s tragic history. But a broader and more complex idea is easy to find, and certainly more poignant.