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A Poetic, Deeply Personal Meditation on Astronomy, Archaeology and 20th-Century Politics From Celebrated Filmmaker Patricio Guzmán
A Co-presentation with Latino Public Broadcasting
“Rates as the filmmaker’s masterpiece, an exquisitely filmed, poetically written meditation on how past and present fuse in humanity’s most unresolved questions.”–Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post
Chile’s high Atacama Desert is one of those rare places where the earth seems truly to touch the sky. Located 10,000 feet above sea level, the Atacama hardly qualifies in any big mountain contest. Yet the desert’s remoteness and the extraordinary fact that it is the driest place on earth, with zero percent humidity, give it some of the clearest skies on the planet. Astronomers come from all over the globe to peer through the world’s biggest telescopes to the very edge of time and space, hoping to discover the secrets of the cosmos. But the Atacama holds other secrets underfoot. Its dry soil has preserved layers of human remains, from pre-Columbian mummies to the bones of 19th-century explorers to the corpses of political prisoners “disappeared” by the Chilean army under General Augusto Pinochet after the military coup of September 1973.
For his extraordinary new film, Nostalgia for the Light, renowned director Patricio Guzmán (The Battle of Chile, The Pinochet Case) traveled to the Atacama Desert to talk to the astronomers who gaze into starlight for cosmic truth; the archeologists who dig to bring the truth of human history into the light; and the haunted relatives of the disappeared who still sift the parched ground for traces of a more recent history–the victims of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Guzmán explores the deep motivations of each of these groups of seekers and the surprising ways their quests overlap.
Nostalgia for the Light, winner of the 2011 International Documentary Association’s IDA Award for Best Feature, has its national broadcast premiere on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012, at 10 p.m., during the 25th anniversary season of the award-winning PBS series POV (Point of View). POV concludes the season with fall and winter specials (dates to be announced). American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, POV is the winner of a Special Emmy for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking, two IDA Awards for Best Continuing Series and the National Association of Latino Independent Producers Corporate Commitment to Diversity Award.
Guzmán is as much poet, essayist, historian and philosopher as filmmaker and, working with cinematographer Katell Djian, he has rendered the stark beauty of the Atacama in all its harsh, sun-scorched clarity. But Guzmán isn’t sending pretty postcards. He uses the gorgeous, otherworldly cinematography to mirror the sense that all film’s the seekers–astronomers, archeologists, grieving women–are at the ends of the known world.
Guzmán’s identification with the government of leftist President Salvador Allende, who preceded Pinochet in 1970, is the leitmotif running through his life’s work. In Nostalgia for the Light, he recalls the Allende era as a “revolutionary tide” in which “we woke up from our slumber.” He cites it as the period when “science fell in love with the Chilean sky” and astronomers built their huge telescopes at Atacama. It was also a time when thousands of Chileans fell in love with astronomy, a passion of Guzmán’s since childhood. The hope of those times, he says, was destroyed on Sept. 11, 1973, when “a coup d’état swept away democracy, dreams and science.” Many scientists and intellectuals, Guzmán among them, along with thousands of other Chileans, were imprisoned, executed or sent into exile by Pinochet’s military.
These events continue to haunt Chile. Even before the dictatorship yielded to democracy in 1990, victims’ relatives began searching the Atacama, where Pinochet had converted an old mine into a notorious prison. The full horror is made palpable when relatives, aided by archeologists, determine that areas of the desert are covered by a layer of finely ground-up human bones.
Other synchronicities in the Atacama emerge in the testimony of two former inmates of Pinochet’s desert prison. One man learned astronomy from another prisoner and pursues it to this day. Another, an architect, kept his sanity by reconstructing the prison in his mind, later making drawings of it with astounding precision, complete with dramatic depictions of what went on behind those walls. These men, like all the people searching in the desert, seek life and meaning in the light of knowledge.
These commonalities among the seekers are not simply serendipitous to Guzmán. They speak to what he sees as the central question binding all those looking for something at Atacama, the same question that binds the scientific to the non-scientific world: What is the meaning of life?
This question unifies the seekers, and the boundaries between them are blurred. The astronomers in Nostalgia for the Light look to the farthest reaches of space for the origins of life, but they also know that buried meteorites bear messages from those far reaches. Similarly, archeologists dig to uncover evidence of human development while aware that the planet and its life were seeded from cosmic events. But the relatives of the disappeared face a troubling uncertainty: What can you say about the meaning of life after such terrible, human-made tragedies?
Guzmán’s own answer is a tour-de-force film that explores the depths of his emotions and history, as it relates particularly but not exclusively to Chile, while he plumbs the passions, hopes and despairs of the desert’s restless, transient visitors. Melding the skyward gazes of astronomers, the underground digs of archeologists and the searching eyes of relatives of the victims of Pinochet’s regime, Nostalgia for the Light is a gorgeous, deeply moving work of documentary art.
“For four years, I struggled to make this project happen,” says Guzmán. “There were times I felt discouraged, but the subject was so powerful that I had to follow it through. The film has many angles: mystical, spiritual, astronomical, ethnographic and political. They were a tangle of questions gnawing at me. How to explain that the calcium that makes up our skeletons is the same calcium in the stars? How to explain that Chile is the world’s leading hub for astronomical investigation even as 60 percent of the assassinations committed by the dictatorship remain unsolved? How to show that the labor of a woman who rummages through the earth with her bare hands resembles that of an astronomer?”
Nostalgia for the Light is an Icarus Films release. It is a co-production of Atacama Productions S.A.R.L. (France), Blinker Filmproduktion GmbH and WDR (Germany) Cronomedia Ltda. (Chile). The film is a co-presentation with Latino Public Broadcasting.
About the Filmmaker:
Patricio Guzmán (Director, Co-cinematographer)
Patricio Guzmán was born in 1941 in Santiago, Chile. As an adolescent, he was inspired by the documentary films of Chris Marker, Frédéric Rossif and Louis Malle. He studied at the Film Institute at the Catholic University of Chile and at the Official School of Film in Madrid, where he obtained his degree in 1970. Guzmán returned to Chile in 1971 and directed his first documentary, The First Year, which covered the first 12 months of Salvador Allende’s government. Chris Marker, who was passing through Chile at the time, saw the film and assisted in having it screened in France. Two years later, Marker again provided invaluable assistance when he donated the raw stock needed to begin filming The Battle of Chile, Guzmán’s four-hour documentary trilogy chronicling Allende’s final year. Filming lasted until the very day of the coup d’état on Sept. 11, 1973, when Guzmán and thousands of others were imprisoned in Chile’s National Stadium.
After gaining his freedom, Guzmán left for Europe. The Battle of Chile (1975-1979) won six grand prizes in Europe and Latin America and was shown in theaters in 35 countries. Cineaste declared it one of the 10 best political films in the world. In 1987, Guzmán made In God’s Name (Grand Prize, Festival dei Popoli) about the Catholic Church’s fight for human rights in Chile. The Southern Cross (1992, Grand Prize, Marseille International Festival of Documentary Film) concerned the theology of liberation and popular religion in Latin America. In 1995, Town in Stasis focused on the historical memory of a Mexican village. In 1997, Chile, Obstinate Memory looked into collective political amnesia in Chile. 1999 brought Robinson Crusoe Island about a remote Chilean island. The Pinochet Case (2001, Grand Prize, Marseille International Festival of Documentary Film) examined the international legal case brought against Pinochet. In 2002, Guzman completed Madrid, a personal look at Spain’s capital.
Recently, Guzmán made Salvador Allende (2006), an award-winning film about the Chilean president’s life. Guzmán currently chairs FIDOCS, the international documentary film festival in Santiago, Chile, that he founded in 1997. He lives in Paris with Renate Sachse, who collaborates on the scripts for his films and produced Nostalgia for the Light. His two daughters, Andrea and Camila, are also filmmakers and frequently collaborate on his projects.
Director/Writer: Patricio Guzmán
Producer: Renate Sachse
Cinematographer: Katell Djian
Editors: Patricio Guzmán, Emmanuelle Joly
Sound Recording: Freddy González
Original Music: Miranda y Tobar
Running Time: 86:46
POV Series Credits:
Executive Producer: Simon Kilmurry
Co-Executive Producer: Cynthia López
Vice President, Programming and Production: Chris White
Series Producer: Yance Ford
Coordinating Producer: Andrew Catauro
Awards and Festivals:
- Winner, IDA Award, Best Feature, 2011
- Winner, Fund for Social Justice and Nuevo Vision Awards, Santa Barbara International Film Festival, 2011
- Special Mention, Prix François Chalais, Cannes Film Festival, 2010
- Winner, Best Documentary, European Film Awards, 2010
- Winner, Best Documentary, Abu Dhabi Film Festival, 2010
- Official Selection, San Francisco International Film Festival, 2011
- Official Selection, Miami International Film Festival, 2011
- Official Selection, Toronto International Film Festival, 2010
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