Desert of the disappeared: Patricio Guzmán on Nostalgia for the Light

Known for his radical political documentaries, 70-year-old Chilean director Patricio Guzmán is back with Nostalgia for the Light, which links his country’s hidden history to the secrets of the stars. In this extended online interview to complement an essay-feature in our August 2012 issue, he talks to Chris Darke.

Chris Darke
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Nostalgia for the Light

A work of wonder and horror, astronomy and atrocity, Patricio Guzmán’s sweeping, philosophical film essay Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia de la luz) is a cinematic variant of the childhood thought experiment in which you write down your name, address, country and continent, and in a kind of vertiginous mental crane-shot ascend to take in the planet, galaxy and universe, until the words run out and you’re adrift in a sea of stars.

Now in his seventies and a political exile from his homeland for over half his life, Guzmán begins by evoking the Chile of his youth. Revisiting an old astronomical telescope at his birthplace of Santiago, he remembers how, as a boy, he “loved science-fiction stories, lunar eclipses and watching the sun through a piece of smoky glass”.

There follows a bravura transition so simple in execution yet magical in effect that it’s a pity to reveal it to readers who haven’t seen the film. A cut takes us to an exterior shot showing the colourful facade of the house, a wind-tossed tree and what looks like a dust storm rising in the street; but the swarming motes sparkle with an unearthly lustre as a cloud of stardust swallows up the past. Performed with a conjuror’s flourish, it also serves to establish the film’s formal parameters and themes: earth and space, matter and void, and time – cosmological, archaeological and historical. These are grand themes that Guzmán grounds in the specific setting of the Atacama Desert, a 600-mile long expanse in northern Chile, which is visible from space and reputedly the driest place on Earth.

This is not the first time the desert has featured in Guzmán’s films. The final shot of The Battle of Chile (La batalla de Chile, 1977-1980), his epic, three-part, vérité account of President Salvador Allende’s attempt to establish democratic socialism in Chile and the ensuing US-backed military coup, is a long take of arid land stretching as far as the eye can see: an ambiguous image of the Chilean horizon under the usurper General Pinochet.

The Pinochet Case (2001), the second film in a ‘trilogy of memory’ that includes Chile, Obstinate Memory (Chile, la memoria obstinada, 1997) and Salvador Allende (2004), opens with the same landscape being excavated for the remains of people murdered under Pinochet’s dictatorship. In Nostalgia for the Light, the Atacama Desert is both ossuary and observatory, and Guzmán interviews those who search among its bones, salt and stars: women still digging for traces of murdered loved ones, an archaeologist unearthing vanished Indian settlements, and astronomers surveying the heavens through the most powerful telescopes on Earth.

The apparent irreconcilability of such subjects (how to connect astronomy and atrocity?) provoked resistance from French television, which has previously supported Guzmán’s projects; this resulted in a lengthy quest for funding, but since its premiere at Cannes in 2010 the film’s fortunes have more than vindicated Guzmán’s commitment. It has been widely distributed and won over 20 awards, including prestigious Best Documentary prizes from the European Film Academy and the International Documentary Association in the US.

Deservedly so; with its breathtaking HD imagery of desert landscapes and deep space, Nostalgia for the Light is visually stunning, philosophically intriguing and profoundly moving. While the film continues to explore what Guzmán describes as his “obsession” with the matter of memory, it does so from an unexpected angle: the memory of matter.

I spoke to him in his Paris home in January.

Nostalgia for the Light

Chris Darke: I want to start by asking you about the student protests in Chile led by 23-year-old Camilla Vallejo. In a recent interview she said, “We did not live through the military dictatorship but we’re aware of what happened from our parents, from books. We thought that this repression had gone, but by questioning the political order, we discovered that they are willing to use these weapons again.” What do you think of her words?

Patricio Guzman: I think that the Chilean political class is old, because during the entire period of political transition they’ve worked fearfully, with timidity and prudence.

We think that there’s a kind of pact between them and the military. Otherwise, why is their memory so lacking? 40 per cent of the cases of human rights abuses have been judged but what about the other 60 per cent? For 38 years, this 60 per cent has remained unaccounted for. That’s a lot.

This includes [former President] Madame Bachelet too, who had the moral authority to do everything, but she was timid. She’s the daughter of a political prisoner who was killed. Her own mother was tortured – I interviewed her when I made The Pinochet Case, a marvellous woman. She didn’t pursue justice. So I have a deep mistrust of this political class.

You showed Nostalgia for the Light in Chile in 2010. Did any of the young protestors come to the screenings?

Yes. We had debates. They were very positive. There’s a real range of classes, middle class and poor alike, interested in cultural events dealing with questions of memory, history, which are critical of the church and the political system, against poor education and health. There’s a large section of society angry about the political system. We had 6,000 spectators with seven copies of the film, in Santiago and in small provincial cities.

I also went to Calama, the city where the women [families of ‘the disappeared’ in the film] come from, and we did a special screening with the mayor, the women, their families, in a big cinema with 5-600 seats, and it was full. It was very moving and the reaction was magnificent. But the film wasn’t released in Calama, where there’s only one cinema, a multiplex.

But generally, yes, the response has been very good. And now the DVD’s selling fast.

Nostalgia for the Light

Has the film been distributed in other Latin American countries?

No, there’s a complicated problem here. In Mexico there’s an itinerant festival but it buys films for $500, which is nothing. So we’re negotiating a contract with the Mexican cinémathèque, which is also a distributor. There are cinémathèques in all the big cities and there’s a ticket price, so they bought the film, but for a ridiculous figure of $1,500.

There’s a distributor in Buenos Aires who was very enthusiastic about the film but decided against taking it. In Brazil, it’s in distribution, but very modestly. But in Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia: no. The distributors in Latin America don’t exist. Generally, they’re elderly and have been working for 30 years or so. They receive American films with the whole package: prints, posters, commercial strategies, subtitles, photos. They go to the airport and pick up the lot. So if this person receives an Iranian or Turkish film, they don’t know what to do with it. The same goes for a Chilean or Bolivian film.

And that’s our problem in Latin America. In the film schools they train directors, editors, set designers and DPs, but there’s no training for distributors and exhibitors, and that’s our Achilles’ heel. It’s vital.

That’s interesting, because for the last ten years or so there’s been a lot of very good young filmmakers coming out of Latin America, but I wasn’t aware that there’s this missing layer in the film culture.

Yes, we’re missing young distributors who work with passion on interesting new films to create a different public. In Chile, there are one or two people like this. In Argentina, two or three, maximum. The problem is money, because culture is free. So how is a filmmaker going to make another film if they’re not paid? That’s a delicate problem.

Do you still run the International Documentary Film Festival in Santiago [FIDOCS]?

Yes, I’m the president now, not the director. There’s a young director, an entirely Chilean team, and my wife and I work on the international selection and help with the Chilean selection.

It’s working well. We had 12,000 spectators last year. We started 15 years ago with 50 spectators! We have major guests, like Nicholas Philibert, Claude Lanzmann and Richard Copans. There’s vitality in this festival, and little by little the numbers of spectators have started to grow. In the last four years they’ve really taken off. It’s because the director is Chilean that he knows better than me which points to press.

Patricio Guzmán shooting Nostalgia for the Light

Patricio Guzmán shooting Nostalgia for the Light

I want to ask you a general question about the Nostalgia for the Light, which also relates to your other films. Is it correct to describe Nostalgia as an essay film rather than a political documentary? And if so, what’s the difference between them?

That’s a good question. I’ve always thought that the domain of the authored documentary lies somewhere between the documentary and the essay. That’s been my definition for most of my life. We take something from journalism and something from the essay. But our work isn’t scientific, it’s a form of artistic work, so it’s subjective, a matter of ideas, intuitions, comparisons and the juxtaposition of interesting things.

But in Nostalgia there is, of course, an element of philosophical reflection on the relationship between human life and the life of the cosmos, on human memory and the memory of the stars, of infinity. It’s a film about the past, a demonstration that the most important thing in life is the past, because the whole territory of the past is fundamental for people and the future. In as much as we are human beings, we are the inheritors of generation upon generation going back to pre-history, and the matter of our bodies is the matter of the stars. We belong to the Milky Way – that’s our home, not just the Earth.

I always intended to make a film that demonstrates the importance of the past and this led me to the Atacama Desert because the desert is a planet of the past, everything there comes from the past. There are people, sure, but they’re people on an empty planet. I’m continuing with this same obsession…

This obsession with memory?

…with the past, memory, and the Earth in general. I’m working on another idea, which is that the sea – water – is the memory of earth. I’m starting with this as my point of departure and I’m writing at the moment.

I think that Nostalgia is a diptych, perhaps even a trilogy, because I have in my head similar images – well, completely different, actually – of the same kind of reflection. And if things go well I might make a third film. It depends on money, production, because at the moment television is in a lamentable state.

In France as well?

Oh yes. It’s always the subject that’s the principal thing, never the reflection, nor the investigation of new ideas. Always stereotypes: the Pharoahs, the Nile, the World Wars. It’s horrible.

Nostalgia for the Light

I think that one of the reasons Nostalgia is so strong as a documentary is that we meet people in the film who are interesting in themselves and are treated with respect. We rarely see this on British television anymore.

There’s a dehumanisation of the documentary. They take no risks whatsoever.

Perhaps that’s why you had trouble finding finance.

Yes. Everyone said to me, “Mr Guzman, what are you doing here? It’s a melange of anthropology, archaeology, cosmology and human rights. What is it?”

I replied, “You’re right. But I’ve got 38 years of experience so I’m capable of making something interesting out of it all. It’s not going to be like something made by an adolescent or a first-time filmmaker!” And they said, “We’ll see.”

And time passed. We waited for five years! And in this time I developed the idea. I write all the time anyway. There’s almost 40 versions of the screenplay, but it’s not a long screenplay anyway, 20 to 30 pages. But it was fascinating for me to enter into this world in which astronomy and archaeology have so much in common. So the delay was positive for the screenplay and the development of the idea but we were in a desperate situation because we we’re thinking we’ve got to live, what are we going to do?

Happily, it was a friend in Spanish TV who came up with some money and The Fonds Sud [French State funding body] said ‘yes’. Two friends – ordinary people – lent us money. Real friends, you know! Without them we wouldn’t have been able to get started. In the end, we were in Cannes with the film, we won the European prize, we won almost five prizes in the US – heavyweight prizes, too!

And so I ask myself, how come these functionaries can get it so wrong? They’re the ‘experts’, in inverted commas. They have a nice salary, nice offices and paid holidays, pensions. One of the ARTE guys said, “With all the action films around today and the thematic multiplicity of the film, it’s not for cinema audiences.” My wife and I were astonished, because there’s something not working in TV and this is a symptom of it.

Nostalgia for the Light

At what stage did you decide that Nostalgia was a film for the big screen and not for TV?

It was something that appeared in the process of working on the film. All the time we thought of TV distribution because the usual source of documentary finding is TV. Canal Plus bought The Pinochet Case and Salvador Allende, which are politically ‘heavy’ films, but they worked well both on TV and in cinema. So we thought that this would continue, but no.

I spoke to a lot of colleagues, Nicolas Philibert, Fred Wiseman, and all the documentarists who make work for the cinema are very preoccupied because they feel isolated. I’m used to it because I’ve felt isolated for most I’ve my life! Everyone talks about a crisis but it’s been like that for 30 years! It’s a total crisis, but it’s normal for documentary because it’s a difficult form.

But today there’s a paradox because there are great directors with great ideas and it’s TV who turns its back on us. That’s something new. TV used to be close to us. Now it’s easier for us in cinema than on TV. And while there’s a lot of competition, with 20 fiction films released every week, there are documentaries that work. It’s inexplicable. I think in time it’ll balance out.

But to be honest, while we were working on the screenplay we weren’t thinking about this divorce between TV and cinema, we were making a film. If we had the chance to show the film on TV, great. If the cinema’s an option, all the better. We didn’t refuse TV assistance a priori.

Can you tell me more about the idea of a diptych or trilogy?

The sea is a kind of planet within our planet, which preserves memory, which is interesting because water arrived from space; comets brought it. It was probable that life came from beyond the earth, which is fascinating. It’s a possibility, it’s not proved scientifically, but many astrophysicists are thinking about the possibility that life could have come from somewhere beyond the earth. We’re very close to proving this with planet sections.

I think it’s a magnificent subject to treat, the earth’s memory. And because Chile has many huge coastlines I’ll no doubt shoot it there.

Four films by Patricio Guzmán: clockwise from top left, The Battle of Chile (1977-80), Robinson Crusoe Island (1999), Salvador Allende (2004) and The Pinochet Case (2001)

Four films by Patricio Guzmán: clockwise from top left, The Battle of Chile (1977-80), Robinson Crusoe Island (1999), Salvador Allende (2004) and The Pinochet Case (2001)

Would it be right to say that Nostalgia for the Light has opened a new approach in your work?

Yes. It’s something I wasn’t conscious of because it’s not a deviation away from my traditional subject. It’s more of a renovation, or a renewal. With each new cycle one should take on new things. That’s my own desire, to constantly renew my approach. I enjoy that.

But at the same time as you’re heading off in a new direction with this film, it’s clear that you’re working with your childhood enthusiasm for astronomy. This was already visible in your 2005 film Mon Jules Verne. Was this the first step towards Nostalgia?

Yes, that and another film, The Southern Cross, which is a film about religion and particularly popular religiosity in Latin America. It’s a sort of history of Latin America from the point of view of religion. I start with pre-Colombian myths and finish with Liberation theology. It’s a political film, of course, but it’s also about spirituality and mythology, and the rituals of religion, their mise-en-scène, as it were.

For example, Guatemala, which for me is the most religious of all the Latin American countries, is also the most Oriental. For me, Guatemala is the most Western part of Asia. It’s completely baroque and inexplicable, Guatemalan culture! I like that film because it’s a description of ritual, which I don’t explain. It’s not a pedagogical film, but a mixture of history and religious reflection. In that film there’s a germ of Nostalgia.

Nostalgia for the Light

I want to ask a question about the meeting with the first of the astronomers in Nostalgia, Gaspar Galaz. You have an exchange with him, and it’s one of the key exchanges in the film, when you say to him that “the present is a fine line”, and he replies “A breath of air could destroy it.” Would it be fair to say that you develop this idea in images throughout the film?

Yes. There are two turning points in the film. That’s the first. The second is the meeting with Lautaro Nunes, the archaeologist, when he says that whereas astronomers look millions of years into the past, archaeologists look back tens of thousands of years, but that it’s the same thing.

And he says something else that’s very important. He says to me, “Yes, Patricio, you’re right. We’ve forgotten the dictatorship, the repression, and the Allende government, it’s true. But it’s worse than that. We’ve forgotten about the nitrate mines of the 19th century. Where are the histories of the miners in the Atacama desert which had over 80 mines at the time, and who’s written that history? Nobody.”

And where are the Indians, both of the north and the south? All the indigenous people have disappeared in the same way they did in the conquest of the Far West. After the war with Peru and Bolivia in the 19th century, the Chilean government expelled all the people who lived there. It was a genocide. In the south, it was the same thing, when all the indigenous people were exterminated over about 60 years.

So what kind of invention is Chilean history? It’s a story written by the historians of the Chilean aristocracy who lie systematically. The current student movement doesn’t just want to improve education, they’re also fired by other sources of indignation: poor education, poor health, poor history, poor memory, and a poor political class. I think it’s these things that unify the students and give them the initiative to change things. That’s very positive.

I was very happy with Lautaro because all at once he revealed the true depth of the amnesia. It’s not historical amnesia that’s my obsession – the coup d’état, Allende, etc – it’s the amnesia of the hundred years of the life of the republic.

Nostalgia for the Light

There’s an interesting moment in your exchange with Lautaro Nunes where he seems to be awaiting a question from you on the dictatorship because he takes his cup of tea and smiles.

I liked this moment because there’s something honest about the direction, which acknowledges the bet at hand: is it possible to make a conceptual leap between the idea of deep history – the light that comes from space, the history buried beneath the desert – and your interest in the more recent political history of Chile?

Yes, it’s a moment of complicity…

…with the spectator, too…

Yes. It’s very interesting how one goes about doing interviews; that’s the key thing. I very much like long, long interviews – a whole day, and the day after if we can. And to give the space totally over to the person I’m talking to. That’s to say, no limits. I said to Lautaro, “You set the boundaries. If you’re tired, we’ll wrap.” We met twice, he and I, and it was the first time I’d met him.

I never have papers in my hands, I memorise my questions and my principal subjects and I’m always like that. My interest is totally focused on the other person.

I was operating the camera for that interview as well, so it was just the two of us, in an agreeable ambiance, drinking tea and he was listening to tangos. He’s an aficionado of the tango. It’s incredible, he has a collection of them and we were listening to old tangos, and for each one he’d recount its dramatic story of impossible love. It’s comical to watch a learned archaeologist who listens to this popular music!

And afterwards, we did the interview. I think that kind of mutual trust works very well for interviewing. And the same goes for Gaspar.

Nostalgia for the Light

Gaspar has a gift for explaining scientific ideas in a very engaging way.

Very much so. It’s curious, today many astronomers and astrophysicists are capable of talking to us, who know nothing of their subjects, with poetry and metaphors. In the 1950s, for example, we didn’t know anything about these people and today they’ve emerged. People like the Canadian Hubert Reeves and [French astrophysicist] Michel Cassé, who wrote the book Nostalgia for the Light, who can explain things. They speak like writers, not astrophysicists, and Gaspar belongs to that group of men.

My assistant director was so impressed by the astrophysicists that he signed up to study it at university. But Gaspar warned him that if you can’t do a year’s worth of algebra you wouldn’t be able to do it. And after a year he gave up. It was too difficult.

Can you talk about the interview with the young woman Valentina Rodriguez that ends the film?

With Valentina, it was a different story. When I discovered that she was the daughter of disappeared parents and an astronomer herself I went to her house and she said, “I can’t give you an interview. I agree with you and I like the screenplay, but I can’t talk because I’ve never spoken about my case in my public.”

So I told her, no problem – that I had a year of work on the film in front of me, and we’d stay in touch. But she was right. It was difficult for her.

Finally, seven months later, I went back with a rough cut of the film on DVD. Valentina’s grandparents came and we watched the film. Valentina said, “I’ll do the interview tomorrow.” It’s fundamental because without her we wouldn’t have had the ending.

Nostalgia for the Light

In the press pack for Cannes you wrote, “Her serene take on the events goes further than ours.” Can you explain what you meant by that?

I think that she’d found a ‘solution’, in inverted commas, for her own mind. The metaphor of the atoms of her parents in the Milky Way, it’s consoling. It’s a way of thinking about things now, but I don’t know how she’ll think about it in years to come, when she’s older.

But the discovery of atoms that are immortal, that are in us, that transform and don’t die… well, it’s eternal life.

Which links to one of the first things that Gaspar says, that the questions of science are the same as those posed by religions.

Exactly. All the myths are the same. That’s why I think there’s a link between The Southern Cross and this film.

A final question. Isn’t the paradox Gaspar puts forward – that the present doesn’t exist – also fundamental to cinema?

Yes, it’s true. The camera resembles a telescope – one sees reality, one films it, and we see that reality doesn’t exist. And cinema is also a time machine. When one watches a film the images unfold before us in the present but they’re already images of the past.

Thanks to Michael Chanan for help with research. Nostalgia for the Light is released on 13 July 2012, and is reviewed in the August 2012 issue of Sight & Sound. A Q&A with Patricio Guzmán follows the screening on 13 July at BFI Southbank, London, where a season of the director’s films plays from 13 to 28 July.

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