Nostalgia for the Light

March 19, 2011

Because of its altitude (10,000 feet above sea level), low humidity and minimal light pollution, Chile’s Atacama desert is the site of some of the world’s largest and most powerful telescopes.  The observatories in the desert are privileged viewing and listening posts, where antennae and lenses can capture signals emitted from the most distant places, from the most remote past.  In the Atacama desert, if you know how to listen, you can hear the Big Bang.

Because of its isolation, and the existence of abandoned mining compounds that could easily be transformed into concentration camps, the Atacama desert is also the site of some of the most chilling horrors perpetrated by the Pinochet regime.  Here the regime imprisoned and tortured thousands of “subversive” supporters of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende; here the junta dumped hundreds of corpses of murdered opponents.  In the Atacama desert, if you know how to look, you can see the ghosts of Pinochet’s victims.

Today, the lunar or Martian landscape of the desert is inhabited by scientists searching for clues in the heavens that might help us understand our most remote past, and by family members of survivors of Pinochet’s genocide, looking for the remains of their loved ones.  Patricio Guzmán’s most recent documentary, “Nostalgia for the Light” brings together in dialogue these different explorers of the desert, in a beautiful and complex meditation on the common ground of astronomy and archeology, history and memory, origins and loss.

At one point in the film, an astronomer compares his obsession with scanning the vast heavens in search of clues about our origins, with the obsession of the women who comb the vast desert looking for signs of their loved ones.  It is ironic, he notes, that the astronomer’s quest seems to garner more respect and understanding from society at large, than does the quest of the grieving survivors, who are often dismissed as crazy or inopportune.  At another moment, one of the survivors, exhausted from another day of scratching the surface of the desert with her small shovel, fantasizes aloud about a giant telescope that could be pointed down at the earth to reveal the less-than-heavenly bodies of lost loved ones.

I was not the only one who attended the premiere of this film at New York’s Independent Film Center last night just after having attended the memorial service for the Lincoln veteran Matti Mattson only a few blocks away at NYU’s King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center.  Nor was I the only one to sense the poignancy and relevance of the issues explored in this film for anyone interested in the question of historical memory in Spain.

“Nostalgia for the Light” has a two-week engagement at the IFC (323 Sixth Avenue at West 3rd St), starting on March 18.