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A fascinating documentary essay about time and memory, about nature and human nature
on July 21, 2011
This extraordinary documentary essay film examines recent human history through the lens of the outer reaches of space. Patricio Guzman, celebrated documentarian whose work has always focused upon the hidden past of Chile, takes the opportunity here to consider the nature of time and memory by juxtaposing two seemingly incompatible investigations that are taking place in the Atacama desert of Chile. This desert, the driest place in the world, is home to some of the largest telescopes in the world, where astronomers take advantage of the arid skies in order to gaze at the cosmos, in hopes of unlocking the mysteries of the universe. At the same time, this desert is home to other, more unsettling mysteries, since it is believed that the bodies of political prisoners from the Pinochet era were buried here. As the astronomers research the stars, the families of victims examine the earth. As the astronomers look to the lights that shine in the midst of the darkness of the heavens, these intrepid women seek to cast light on an era of secrecy and corruption.
In a conversation at the Cannes film festival, where this film was first screened, Guzman described it as "metaphysical, mystical or spiritual, astronomical, ethnographic and political." You might add "environmental," since the film asks us to consider ourselves in relation to our environment both in the broadest sense, as we are inhabitants of a small rock hurtling through the immensity of an inhospitable space, and in the most immediate sense as we are political creatures, who make for ourselves an uneasy home among others like us. Above all, though - and this is what I take to be the decisive feature that makes us different from all other animals - what surrounds us, our true environs, is not some place, but it is time itself, or history. Time is our habitat, insofar as our way of life is not something fixed. We live out of and upon our own past; we do not inhabit nature directly, rather we inhabit nature insofar as it has been transformed by our predecessors. Yet, the problem is that it is so easy to be oblivious to that history to forget that the world we inherit is not the way it has always been or always will be, but the way that we have made it. One way to recover a sense for the ephemeral nature of the human species is to reflect on those realities for which changes take place on a much longer time scale, the stars and celestial bodies. Another, equally important, way to remember how quickly we change is to engage in the painstaking process of history, of attempting to remember what we have been and what we have done, and not allow what some might prefer to forget to drift into oblivion.
This film has us look at images of the skies, and of the instruments through which they are seen, and of the people who care for and use these instruments. At the same time we look at and listen to women who are searching for the remains of their loved ones. What struck me as most intriguing about this film is its meditation on time, both in its universal sense as measured by the clock or the movements within the cosmos, and its much more personal and intimate sense of the times we remember and the times we forget. An astronomer in the film points out the implications of a remarkable fact, that when we observe a star we are not observing the present but the past. As soon as the light from an event has reached our eyes, that event has passed away. We might say, in general that we can never actually experience our own time, because as soon as its significance is clear it is no longer the present. At the same time, we cannot truly move on, we cannot overcome the past until it has become clear, until it has come to light for us. The title of the film "Nostalgia for the Light" points to this paradox. Nostalgia is the feeling of loss that accompanies what is no longer present, what has been left behind. It might seem strange to be nostalgic for the light, unless one finds oneself in darkness - but as the film suggests, to be in the presence of light is also to be in the presence of loss, it is to be in the presence of an unremediable past, the confrontation of which can alone provide the clarifying insight necessary to move into the future.