So the people who study the stars are just archaeologists, but with a really long view of history. That’s the very astute point Patricio Guzmán uses to connect two apparently disparate pasts in his stunning documentary, Nostalgia for the Light. (Blink and you might miss this 2010 film: it was finally released in the UK recently, but only in a few cinemas.)
What Guzmán has done is almost as miraculous as the Big Bang itself. In fact, I’d say that it is as unique as the Big Bang – there can only be one film like this. The documentary tells the story of the astronomers working at the giant telescopes installed in Chile’s Atacama desert, where the lack of humidity creates a clear view to space, and the tale of the locals who remain affected by General Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Guzmán meets the women who still scour the desert for the bones of their loved ones, killed as political dissidents. If these stories seem unconnected, you haven’t met Guzmán yet. His perfectly crafted film is an exercise in memory and even what Toni Morrison described as ‘re-memory’.
Keeping alive the dreadful events of Pinochet’s rule – so long as you have nothing with which to bury them – is the same as looking up at the stars. You only ever observe a star as it was millions of years ago when its light started travelling to you. You see what Guzmán did there. But the experience of this film is much more than it sounds. I must admit that I almost dismissed the idea as gimmicky, not helped by an ugly title.
What I actually experienced in the darkened Curzon Renoir yesterday where I saw Nostalgia for the Light was sublime. Even as a space fan, I had never felt our connection to the stars – until watching this film. Astronomy is a very challenging discipline and even just observing the stars themselves is baffling. The fact that I am but a speck on a speck in this vast universe makes it difficult to feel the connection with all those giant balls of gas. And yet Guzmán performs his magic trick and I gradually grasp the stars.
The achievement is underpinned by the real stories of the people whose human rights were trampled by Pinochet. While ‘human rights’ are essentially a product of a certain time and place – no matter how hard campaigners try to describe them as otherwise – here they do feel universal. Injustice is injustice, Guzmán shows. And pain is pain.
But the director is not quite done with that. While he shows us this, he wants to do so using angles we’ve never seen before. And so his film is a work of art. Its lingering portraits, super-slow tracking shots and use of sound draw viewers into a world of modern science, of raw emotion and of crumbling nature. It really is extraordinary.
Photo courtesy of Trodel.