Sunday, July 22, 2012

This documentary film by the legendary exiled Chilean director Patricio Guzmán follows on from earlier work on his homeland, most notably The Battle of Chile, which focuses on Salvador Allende’s short period in office before the US-backed coup that put Pinochet in power. Guzmán’s cinematic legacy and vitalness is about not forgetting Chile’s history, most specifically Pinochet’s legacy.

Nostalgia for the Light is perhaps less overtly political than some of the director’s earlier work, yet the persecution of Pinochet’s regime, and the importance of remembering not forgetting the victims, strongly reverberates.

This is a beautifully meditative and melancholic piece. Chile’s Atacama desert, the driest place on earth, is central, both physically and metaphorically. It is here that the world’s largest telescopes that study the cosmos are positioned. Perhaps surprisingly scientists remind us that when we look at the stars we are actually looking back in time, backwards, into the past.

Thus, astronomy has much in common with archaeology, both mining the past, looking for clues. We see the Chilean women of the desert, such as Victoria and Violetta, 30 years later, still digging and searching the dry dust for remains of their loved ones who disappeared under Pinochet’s regime. Isolated human remains, bones, have been recovered, mostly too fragmented to piece together as an identifiable whole… The victims of the regime can never be quantified, as so many have never been found. The word ‘disappeared’ echoes loudly in the vast arid infinite open space.

The film underpins the myth of the present. There is no such thing. Everything, including the letters I am currently typing, is instantly in the past. Looking upwards to the sky and the stars, and downwards to the earth, the dirt, the sand…all is from before, not now. The power of the past is that it can always be with us, it can mould today. What Guzmán has achieved for Pinochet’s victims is a collective memory, a remembered past that constitute a present.

The BFI is concurrently featuring Guzmán’s other work, including The Battle of Chile.

Tonight I saw The Pinochet Case (2001), the story of bringing the dictator to judgement. Again, I was struck by the tenderness and respect that Guzmán has for the sufferers of the regime. The camera lingers tenderly, often in silence, and the director is as always unobtrusive. I found the film almost unbearably tragic and moving, desperately hoping for a positive outcome. But there can never be a resolution for Pinochet’s victims. As one commented:

‘People tell us it’s better to forget, but you can only forgive someone who has asked you for forgiveness.’

Guzmán states that The Pinochet Case is all about suffering and pain. Clearly yes, but what he has achieved with this, and with Nostalgia for the Light and his other work, and which is in itself uplifting, are works of art that signify the collective witnessing of a past that can be remembered today, and tomorrow.