Looking for Truth, Above and Below
The Atacama Desert in Chile is high in the mountains, with thin, arid air that makes it a perfect spot for astronomers studying the night sky. But it's also remote, and made the perfect hideout for prison camps during the brutal dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet during the 1970s, when thousands of accused political enemies disappeared and were later learned murdered.
It's also the setting for writer-director Patricio Guzmán's 2010 documentary, Nostalgia for the Light, which debuts Thursday, Oct. 25 at 10 p.m. ET on the PBS documentary series POV (check local listings).
Guzman's narrative is very much in the style of recently deceased French "Left Bank" director Chis Marker (Sans Soleil). It's a hybrid — half documentary, half essay — with Guzman's meditative voice-over weaving in and out of the story of his subjects.
The result is an evocative overlapping of two styles and two seemingly divergent stories. One looks at the astronomy community populating the Atacama, unique for its high altitude and unmatched vantage point of the heavens. The other recounts the horrors of the Pinochet regime, its political slaughter and subsequent efforts to hide the crimes by exhuming bodies from mass graves at concentration camps inside the Atacama and scattering the fragments across the desert.
The two stories form a sad yet beautiful video notebook as the filmmaker explores the two opposed subjects, finding compelling common ground for them among the desert rocks and sand.
Like Marker's projects, Nostalgia for the Light is a spectacularly rich visual poem of memory, time and politics. It also simultaneously admits that the facts are often rendered in the personal light of the reporter, the filmmaker himself. In the essay form objectivity is dispensed with, and the filmmaker's own thoughts are front and center, becoming part of the story itself.
In the case of Nostalgia for the Light, Guzmán may not match the heights of Marker's skill, but the use of the method is appropriate. Interviews with astronomers at their observatories reveal their natural passion for the mysteries of the cosmos and the origins of creation. But as they peer into the night sky for answers, they also agree that rest of the truth, the truth of the recent Chilean past, lays inside the same territory that gives them their unobstructed view of the universe.
Halfway through the film, Guzmán turns his attention to Pinochet's political survivors. The astronomers, picking through an ocean of data and ancient light from the heavens that took millions of years to reach earth, become coupled and framed alongside survivors — Guzmán himself one of them — still hunting 40 years later for bone fragments and remains of loved ones in an ocean of desert 600 miles long.
Maybe most startling in the story of Miguel, whom Guzmán terms the Architect of Memory. A concentration camp survivor, now well into his old age, Miguel had secretly sketched out layouts of the camps at night in his barracks and then tore them into small strips to be tossed into the latrine each morning. It was his method for committing the configuration of the crimes to memory — the barracks, the cells, vignettes of guards beating prisoners. His method worked so well that he can still accurately produce the sketches today, and does so for Guzmán's camera as if the horrors occurred yesterday.
Archaeologists and astronomers are still working in the Atacama desert, looking both below ground and into the sky for answers. As one of the surviving searchers says, "As I told you the other day, I wish the telescopes didn't just look into the sky, but could also see through the earth so that we could find them."
[Nostalgia for the Light is presented in the original Spanish version, with subtitles. It will be available online here, from Oct. 26 through Nov. 21, 2012.]