Documentary Site started as an outlet for my interests in documentary 15 years ago. Since then, my presence has expanded to writing, managing Twitter fans, and connecting with makers, promoters, and fans of documentary. Probably three of the coolest things to come from this endeavor are being invited to write for POV, visiting Kartemquin studios, and leading a discussion after a screening of The Trials of Muhammad Ali. My current project involves watching and writing about 365 documentaries in 2014. Feel free to send along your suggestions via Twitter @documentarysite!

#365Docs: Nostalgia for the Light (60/365)

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I’m watching 365 documentaries and writing about each one in 2014. Tweet your suggestions to @documentarysite, or send an e-mail to hmcintosh@documentarysite.com. Read more.

Note: This post may contain spoilers.

Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light (2010) opens not with people, but with artistic cinematography and contrapuntal sound of heavy equipment shifting, turning, rotating. There is no narration, no scored music — just the rhythms of the telescope moving. Only as the shots shift to objects within a house does Guzmán’s voiceover begin.

Nostalgia for the Light tells two stories bound by the same place, the Atacama Desert in Chile. One story, the one about the stars, looks up. The other story, the one about victims and prisoners, looks down. According to the poetic voiceover, the desert is a “vast open book of memory, page by page.”

With its zero humidity, the desert is home to the largest telescope in the world. Astronomers use it to answer questions about the universe, matter, and humanity.

The desert also is home to abandoned mines, concentration camps, and mass graves. Women look for human bones among the ruins, hoping to find their loved ones who were killed during the 1970s.

History and memory link these two groups, a point that Guzmán develops through a handful of chosen interviews with relatives, camp survivors, and other scientists. Even though their paths don’t cross, these groups both work in the past because, according to astronomer Gaspar Galaz, “The present doesn’t exist.” A gap of time and distance always divides a phenomenon’s origin and its perception.

Guzmán’s documentary is both beautiful and awful. The beautiful comes through in the meditative narration, the gorgeous cinematography, and the thoughtful sound. The awful comes through in the question of a country needing to reconcile with its past of those tortured and killed and with the gaps those undocumented deaths left behind. The overall result is a stunning documentary.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site as a resource for documentary media and has greatly enjoyed the connections it has fostered over the years.