Nostalgia for the Light

July 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Having read no reviews, just aware that these were headed with four of five stars, I went to see Nostalgia for the Light with only a vague sense of the film’s subject. It was on at the Dalston Rio, more or less my local cinema, otherwise I might have missed it, since I’m not usually drawn to documentaries on the big screen. So I was unprepared for this beautiful, powerful film that explores the earth and sky of the Atacama Desert in Chile, the driest place in the world, so lacking in moisture that it’s the closest we get to the landscape of Mars.

It also has the clearest skies, which is why the Atacama Cosmology Telescope was built there, to measure the most distant galaxies and study how the universe began. Astronomers speak in the film, about what it means to search for the remote past in the heavens; archaeologists speak about what the dry, salty soil has preserved from prehistoric times, and historians narrate more recent histories. Someone observes that the closer things get to us in time the more they become like ‘state secrets’. These voices converge on a present filled with a painful urgency: the search for the remains of those secretly murdered under Pinochet’s regime, the ‘disappeared’.

This was where Pinochet had his concentration camps (using old mining buildings) and the mass graves of thousands have been found there since that regime ended. Body parts and shattered bones litter the desert and for some years now groups of women have been sifting through these for what they might find of dead brothers and husbands and lovers. An astronomer at the observatory compares their task to reaching into the furthest of the galaxies to find those exiled and lost, so vast is the desert.

The film is allusive, slow-paced, with long close-ups of faces, wide views of cracked earth and mountains like spikes or silky piled up duvets, and those endless skies, by day and by night. The pace allows gaps for thought, for connections, for entering into the spaces of the desert and its mysteries. Some of the speakers rage and weep, others weigh up their tragedies with a heartrending stoicism. A concentration camp survivor describes the astronomy lessons that were quickly forbidden by the guards for fear that the prisoners would escape and make their way to safety guided by the constellations. The film’s sorrowful poetry is counterpointed by a joy in the tenacity of the living .

I remember 11 September 1973. Pinochet’s coup and the slaughters and tortures that followed shocked my generation on the left; the trauma of it reverberated and I have always remembered the date and the moment when I heard the news. In the years that came after, all ordinary freedoms were crushed and violence ruled to ensure this. There were no international sanctions or oppositions; on the contrary, the coup against Salvador Allende’s elected socialist government was CIA-backed, and Pinochet’s Chile became a testing ground for the economic theories of Milton Friedman and the ‘Chicago Boys’, making it the first neoliberal free-market economy, the precursor to Thatcherism and Reaganism.

Latin America was full of right-wing dictatorships that thrived with US support, but Pinochet merits a place next to Hitler and Stalin (on a smaller scale, of course; in 1973 Chile’s population was around 10 million). His good friend Margaret Thatcher invited him to tea in 1998. That was when the Spanish human rights judge Baltasar Garzón issued a warrant for his arrest and extradition to stand trial in Spain. Now Garzón is being persecuted by the right in his own country and has lost his status as a judge.

The intensity of Nostalgia for the Light made it feel like watching not a documentary but a fiction film, and I was reminded of Roberto Bolaño’s wonderful novel, The Savage Detectives, a mosaic of fragments, searches and intricate, far-reaching stories. Bolaño, a Chilean, was in one of the local defence militia set up in working-class districts as everyone prepared for the coming coup. People knew it was coming, both inside and outside Chile, but the defence militia had no weapons and, despite their pleas, Allende refused to supply them. There was much bitterness about this. (Would a few rifles have saved lives? The army began with heavy artillery, obliterating buildings, shantytowns and those inside them. But it’s hard to calibrate whether low-level resistance in the face of military might is futile or worthwhile, if it hasn’t had a chance.) Many years later Bolaño talked in an interview about how angry he had been with Allende for refusing the weapons, but over time he had come to see him as a hero, a brave man who died a truly heroic death. Allende had faith in democracy, and I can recall how, before Allende’s election, Chile was regarded as Latin America’s most hopefully democratic country, and how in some respects it was seen as resembling Britain. Patricio Guzmán’s film begins with his childhood memories of a quiet country not yet rent with violence.

Last winter I saw another Chilean film, Pablo Larraín ‘s surreal dark comedy Post Mortem. It suggested that active memory of the coup and its horribly lingering aftermath has been buried for too long. Nostalgia for the Light is another sign that the memories of that trauma at last begin to breathe.


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