Compared to the immensity of the cosmos, the problems of the Chilean people might seem insignificant. But if we laid them out on a table, they would be as vast as a galaxy.

Patricio Guzman’s entire body of work as a film maker has been an act of remembrance. His best-known film, the trilogy Battle of Chile, was the first of several films in which the director has returned to the trauma of the overthrow of the Popular Unity government of President Salvador Allende in the military coup of 11 September 1973 which resulted in the murderous military dictatorship of General Pinochet in which thousands of people were ‘disappeared’ and perished, and thousands more, including Guzmán himself, forced into exile. Guzman’s camera man on The Battle of Chile, Jorge Müller, was just one of those kidnapped and ‘disappeared’ by Pinochet’s thugs in 1974.

Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean novelist and human rights activist has observed:

The inquiries that Patricio Guzmán makes into the Chilean revolution, Pinochet’s coup and the derived consequences break your heart, and will be considered for many centuries to come one of the most eloquent and bold explorations of a revolution and of a repression, of hope and memory, of overcoming tragic times. What Guzmán passionately and sharply observes serves for the whole world.

Like Claude Lanzmann, Guzman is a documentary film maker who is interested not just in the past, but specifically the past in the present: how the past continues to live and shape the present moment, even in ways of which we may not be aware.  Now Guzman has produced what may be the finest film of his career – Nostalgia for the Light, which I saw this week.  It’s an extraordinary film which grapples with the unsalved wounds of the Chilean experience in a deeply personal, poetic and philosophical manner.

Guzman’s point of departure in Nostalgia for the Light is a sequence in which he fondly recalls his childhood, growing up in Santiago in the 1950s which he recalls as a time of tranquillity when ‘it was possible to live in the present’. From childhood he has been interested in astronomy, and the film opens with images of the telescope that inspired him, built in 1910 and still working today.  It is astronomy that determines the direction that Guzman’s film now takes.

Patricio Guzman

Guzman travels to the Atacama Desert, a 600-mile stretch of high plateau in northern Chile that is the driest place on earth – it never rains. Composed of salt, sand and lava, the place has the bleak, ravishing beauty of a distant and forbidding planet, captured by Guzman in stunning images. Because it’s so dry, and so far from cities, its clear skies draw astronomers from around the world to observe the stars using radio telescopes that can detect events at the boundaries of the universe. Here, Guzman conducts conversations with some of the scientists, one of whom points out that by definition astronomy is the study of the past, since the interplanetary light they study has been travelling for hundreds of thousands of years before it reaches us.

But while the astronomers with their telescopes gaze back millions of years, nearby archaeologists sift the desert sands to look back thousands of years.  Meanwhile, out ion the burning desert sands, women search for the remains of their loved ones in a desperate attempt to piece together personal stories from nearly half a century ago.  They are the  surviving relatives of the disappeared whose bodies were hurled from helicopters here by Pinochet’s army.

‘Mankind needs a memory to live in the present’, Guzman explains, before continuing:

I wanted to make a film that would show the importance of the past for human life, for matter and the universe. It is a series of stories that develop in the past. And the place is the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile. And there are remains from the past that are very interesting. There are pre-Columbian mummies. There are abandoned saltpeter mines from the 19th century. There are buried meteorites. There are dinosaur prints. There are huge astronomic observatories. There are about 35 telescopes. They’re enormous. If you lay on the ground and look at the cosmos, it is frightening. It seems so close that it is frightening. And there are women that look for the bodies of those detained by Pinochet.

Guzman’s key point is that these three groups of searchers, sifting the past for evidence, reflect the paradox of the Chilean experience:  that, while Chileans are fascinated by astronomy and archaeology and keen to learn about the distant past, they have been reluctant to confront their immediate past, to look into the large numbers murdered or ‘disappeared’ by the Pinochet regime.

So the three subjects of Guzman’s film have this in common: the preservation of memory.  They observe the past in order to be able to better understand the present and future. In the face of the uncertain future, Guzman argues, only the past can enlighten us. The connections between these three groups form the heart of the film. What they say resonates powerfully because Guzman has found such articulate and thoughtful people to interview and the way he talks to them.

Graves in the Atacama desert

The desert is a vast, timeless space that is made up of salt and wind. A fragment of planet Mars on planet Earth. Everything there is motionless. And yet this stretch of land is filled with mysterious traces of the past. There are still ruins of villages, two thousand years old. The trains abandoned in the sand by the 19th century miners have not moved. There are also some gigantic domes that look like fallen space vessels in which the astronomers live. All around there are human remains. When night falls, the Milky Way is so bright that it projects shadows onto the ground.

In one sequence, Guzman speaks with a former political prisoner who watched the stars when he was incarcerated in one of Pinochet’s concentration camps in the Atacama desert. He says:

Observing the sky and stars, marveling at the constellations, we felt completely free.

This prisoner, Miguel Lawner, was an artist and architect, and his words provide a concise representation of the Guzman’s thesis about memory. To cope with his imprisonment, Lawner made mental maps of each cell, yard, and fence, memorising precisely the layout of the prison and the features of the prisoners.  Later, having survived and regained his freedom where others did not, he used his skills to preserve his experience in drawings and diagrams. His portraits reclaim a moment in Chilean history that the Pinochet regime attempted to erase completely, and which subsequent governments have been reluctant to excavate. Guzman describes Lawner as a ‘transmitter of history’, a history that only survives through his art and the memories of the survivors.

A moment’s reflection will remind the viewer that Guzman’s film has a relevance well beyond the borders of Chile: in all those situations where memory is repressed or regarded as too painful to confront.  Whether it be the slave trade, the Holocaust, the Soviet gulag or the Yugoslav wars, those who survive such tragedies and live with their traumatic aftermath demand remembrance and restitution. For wider society the issue is: how can we remember and honour the victims without allowing remembrance to poison or imprison succeeding generations? Are we doomed to fight the same battles generation after generation? Can we draw a line under the past and, at the same time, hold firm to the truths that lie there.

The questions raised by Nostalgia For The Light, recall Milan Kundera’s words in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting

The story which Kundera tells in his novel is based on an actual event. After the coup in 1948 which brought the Communist party to power, the President Klement Gottwald and Vladimir Clementis, fellow party leader and later Foreign Minister, were photographed together as they stood on a snowy Prague balcony in February 1948.  Clementis graciously offers his warm fur hat to the bare-headed Gottwald while placing a cloth hat on his own head. The scene is photographed and becomes an iconic image of the Communist takeover.

Four years later, Clementis is purged from the Communist Party and, after being convicted in the Slansky show trial, is hanged. Then he is eliminated from all official records, including the now-famous photograph (above).  As Kundera neatly puts it, all that is left of Clementis is his fur hat on Gottwald’s head.  But, everybody who saw the fur hat on Gottwald remembered Clementis and the official suppression of memory.

The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history, Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster……The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

Demonstrators holding posters with the portraits of missing or killed relatives protest in Santiago
Demonstrators holding posters with the portraits of missing or killed relatives protest in Santiago

Nostalgia For The Light ends with a sequence in which the women seen earlier searching the desert for the disappeared ones are shown meeting the astronomer Gaspar Galaz who shows them the 100 year old telescope with which Guzman began the film, and gives them an opportunity to view the heavens through it.  This is how Guzman described the filming of this moving passage in an interview:

They were very hesitant to meet each other. The women were saying, ‘We don’t have any education, we have nothing in common with this astronomer’. And Gaspar was also hesitant, saying, ‘I’m an intellectual, I don’t have anything in common with these women from the desert’. And I was in between, trying to bring both sides together. So when they first met, there was tension. But everything changed when Gaspar told the women that the moon has been witness to human acts for millions of years and knows where their missing relatives are. So the next time they see the moon, he told them, they can ask it where their loved ones’ remains are.

In the film, Guzman concludes his narration with these words:

I am convinced that memory has a gravitational force. It is constantly attracting us. Those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moment. Those who have none don’t live anywhere. Each night, slowly, impassively, the centre of the galaxy passes over Santiago.

Nostalgia, Memory, and Revolution: An Interview With Patricio Guzmán


Guzman’s film is a reminder, too, of Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet whose life was shattered by Pinochet’s coup and Allende’s suicide. Neruda died only 12 days later, after his house had been ransacked by a military unit. When he saw the commander of the unit, weapon in hand in his bedroom, Neruda, who could hardly speak, told him, ‘There is only one dangerous thing for you in this house – poetry’.

That September, the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis was due to premiere a work in the Santiago stadium based on the first seven parts of Neruda’s Canto General. On 11 September, the military junta seized power under Pinochet, imprisoning the supporters of Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular in that same stadium.  That was where soldiers tortured and killed Victor Jara,the popular poet, singer-songwriter and political activist.

Canto XII: extract from ‘The Heights of Macchu Picchu’:

Arise to birth with me, my brother.
Give me your hand out of the depths
sown by your sorrows.

You will not return from these stone fastnesses.
You will not emerge from subterranean time.
Your rasping voice will not come back,
nor your pierced eyes rise from their sockets.

Look at me from the depths of the earth,
tiller of fields, weaver, reticent shepherd,
groom of totemic guanacos,
mason high on your treacherous scaffolding,
iceman of Andean tears,
jeweler with crushed fingers,
farmer anxious among his seedlings,
potter wasted among his clays –
bring to the cup of this new life
your ancient buried sorrows.

Show me your blood and your furrow;
say to me: here I was scourged
because a gem was dull or because the earth
failed to give up in time its tithe of corn or stone.

Point out to me the rock on which you stumbled,
the wood they used to crucify your body.
Strike the old flints
to kindle ancient lamps, light up the whips
glued to your wounds throughout the centuries
and light the axes gleaming with your blood.
I come to speak for your dead mouths.

Throughout the earth
let dead lips congregate,
out of the depths spin this long night to me
as if I rode at anchor here with you.
And tell me everything, tell chain by chain,
and link by link, and step by step;
sharpen the knives you kept hidden away,
thrust them into my breast, into my hands,
like a torrent of sunbursts,
an Amazon of buried jaguars,
and leave me cry: hours, days and years,
blind ages, stellar centuries.

And give me silence, give me water, hope.
Give me the struggle, the iron, the volcanoes.
Let bodies cling like magnets to my body.
Come quickly to my veins and to my mouth.
Speak through my speech, and through my blood.

See also

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