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.
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.
Credit: Icarus Films.
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?