This spring, San Francisco witnesses the arrival of a masterpiece: Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light, his septuagenarian meditation on memory and history in Chile, his usual documentary subjects. But this time he travels deep into the specific to illuminate the general: broader themes of childhood, astronomy, forensic anthropology, desert geography, the passage of time—and the ability of humans to survive trauma and bring its questions into the future.
It is an essayistic film that fulfills the emotional promise of its title, borrowed from a 1987 book by a famous French astronomer, Michel Cassé. Guzmán confided that he and Renate Sachse, his wife and producer, traveled to Cassé's observatory to describe the film and request permission to borrow the phrase from the author himself. Request granted.
I would love to have been there to hear that description, for it is not an easy task to explain this complex film. Peering at stars and digging up bones do not a movie make. And yet, with Guzmán's voice in the room guiding us through these micro- and macro- worlds, they do. Never mind the DVD extras, this is a film that incorporates all its connections and conclusions into its own telling, a meta-documentary that takes the audience forward and backward in time and space to arrive at a sort of peace, an acceptance without forgiveness and an exchange between generations that leaves hardly a dry eye in the house. Nostalgia may be the most optimistic film in Guzmán's oeuvre, but he still knows how to make us cry, and mourn and remember.
In Exile, In Production
For four decades, Guzmán has been known as the man obsessed with justice. In today's terms, Chile became Guzmán's brand, and the history of injustice has become his “product.” What a perverse sentence! Yoking this noble history of witnessing to the crass standards of our modern marketplace may sound grotesque but, alas, not unthinkable (more about that later). What is important to recognize is that, in the history of Chile and the preservation of memory, Guzmán found the material for film after film.
His career started with the legendary Battle of Chile, a three-part documentary chronicling the Salvador Allende presidency and then, as events overtook it, the General Pinochet coup. The landmark documentary was completed in exile in Cuba, after Guzmán had left Chile and been reunited with the precious reels of footage. Even the film stock had its own legendary history: As events in Chile escalated, much of it had been sent to him in Chile to allow the continuation of the filming, an act of solidarity by a politically committed little group: Chris Marker, Simone Signoret, Yves Montand.
In recent years, Guzmán has freed the two major figures of good and evil from their perverse historical bond to give each his own separate documentary: Salvador Allende (2004) and The Pinochet Case (2001). It would seem that in the nearly 40 years since the notorious coup d'etat that killed off the democratically-elected government (with the incalculable aid of the U.S. and C.I.A., ironically today's defenders of 'democracy'), Guzmán has maintained a laser focus on injustices and the sobering dark workings of history, like a political righter of wrongs on a crusade, "the fugitive" hunting a far more massive murderer to settle a much more fatal score.
That, however, would not take the measure of the man, not at all. Patricio Guzmán is a cultured man of the old school, knowledgeable about seemingly everything, generous in his conversation, more than happy to share stories over a bottle of good red wine or a plate of excellent pasta. San Francisco just might be his kind of town!
In 1998, Guzmán came to the San Francisco International Film Festival with the film that marked his first return to Chile after the Pinochet years, Chile, Obstinate Memory (which took the grand prize for documentary, by the way). I remember a lunch with him at a table by an open window on one of those balmy April afternoons at the long-gone Little City Café. He told me then that San Francisco reminded him of Valparaiso, the Chilean coastal town beloved for its bohemian spirit and cultured life style. Guzmán was living in Madrid at the time, and I detected a yearning for another life. Sure enough, today he lives with Renate in a picturesque garden atelier in a typical Parisian neighborhood where there's presumably plenty of red wine and good food. And where, once upon a time, there was plentiful funding for documentary, too. For a time Guzmán even became a documentary evangelist, urging filmmakers to follow his example and move to France for its plentiful television financing.
Then disillusionment arrived on his doorstep. Today, over another lunch in San Francisco as good as the last, Guzmán laments the state of television in France (and don't get him started on Sarkozy). It's no better, he points out, in the rest of Europe or the United States. He pulls out facts and figures, then sends me a follow-up document he's written: "The Financial Odyssey of Nostalgia for the Light."
This document details a production horror story: 15 European television channels turned him down for production financing, and he was twice rejected by the CCC (Centre National de la Cinématographie), the French agency that can advance funds on an advance-of-receipt model. For three years, he searched for funding, turned down by 15 entities, all itemized in a list. Finally, Renate Sachse took matters into her own hands, signed on as producer, and together with Guzmán raised the money in the form of loans from friends, private investors sympathetic to the project. They shot with a skeleton crew: the two of them, the cinematographer, the sound recordist, all four in a jeep criss-crossing the Atacama desert. Finally, further into the process, they got some additional funds from Spanish and German television entities and a few other small grants, including one from the Sundance documentary fund.
Guzmán tells his tale not to elicit sympathy (actually, he recalls, he'd never been happier than on that shoot in the desert) but rather to reveal the desperate straits that all documentary filmmakers find themselves in today. Every television exec said the same thing: We have no place for this great film, no programming strand, it's wonderful but not for the general public, etc. He was damned with faint praise everywhere that he or Sachse appealed their case. It left him fearing for the future of documentary, and thus, for the world at large.
In the end, in a way, he's had the last laugh: Nostalgia for the Light was selected for the official competition at the Cannes Film Festival last year and went on to win the European Film Award. Here's the trick, though: In order to win, you first have to make the film. It's a Catch-22 without any obvious answer. Guzmán fears that the values of inquiry, truth, history, and testimony that shaped his own work and a shared documentary universe are vanishing from televisions in the rush to entertainment, the explosion of reality shows, YouTube fodder. Of course, television is hardly television any more, with the web and mobile devices usurping its functions. We are living in a universe of narrow-casting that, intentionally or not, prevents our seeing the big picture of the world we inhabit. Documentary is in danger and needs protection, like an endangered species.
For Patricio Guzmán, entering a fifth decade of filmmaking, this erasure must be unendurable. For me as a critic, with years of prizing his documentary genius, Nostalgia for the Light arrives as a worthy counter-weight to that erasure. It's an object lesson of how to live with history without being smothered by its weight, how to clutch hope and an ambition for the future out of the depths of tragedy. It's an experience of wholeness that is all too rare in today's media universe.
The View from Above
Nostalgia for the Light opens with the stars. Guzmán was an astronomy buff in his youth and says that Chileans always have been. Part of the nostalgia of the title is for those stars and their light, illuminating the plains of the Atacama desert where we will enter a famous observatory. And it also opens with the past, images prompted by a trip to the observatory of his youth, frozen in time, full of ancient radios and furniture and a German-made telescope creaking on its tracks. With memories summoned from this visit, Guzmán shares the remnants of a pre-Allende past: old buildings and colors, a town where “the presidents of the republic could walk in the streets without bodyguards.”
The man sitting next to me at one public screening turned out to be Chilean and too excited to keep his responses to himself. "That's it," he cried, grasping my arm in the dark. "He has captured my entire generation. Any of us would recognize those images and those rooms, we know that time."
The personal and the universal are themes that will not remain separated despite our distance from those stars. Inside the observatory, we discover the universe, theories of the black hole, the scientific knowledge of the stars as the remnants of a past; later in the film, there will be mystical shots of outer space, colliding and dissolving and emerging before our eyes as a magical place beyond cognition. There's no evidence that Guzmán has been listening to Moby (his soundtrack taste runs much more toward the classical) but “We Are All Made of Stars” may well start to ring in your ears when Guzmán's voice reveals that stars have the same calcium as human bones. And with that, we are off to the film's other terrain: the landscape outside the observatory where ageing women sift the ground for the bones of their missing loved ones, once dumped into mass graves in the desert by Pinochet's torture brigades.
Aha! Bait and switch! That may be your initial reaction as a viewer upon finding yourself dumped back into the bones of the past and the stories of torture after Guzmán has promised us the moon and the stars. But never fear. Guzmán stays loyal to the passion of his youth, never kicking us out of the observatory, but never confining his own lens to the telescope's view, either. He keeps the skies in sight and talks to the young astronomers who look for and find meaning in the universe. But he also talks to those women out in the desert with an extraordinary degree of 'active listening' that summons those ghosts from the past and reanimates their stories.
These aren't separate stories, though. Guzmán goes further back in the past, before Allende, before Pinochet, to the 19th century. There in the desert, preserved in the very aridity that has drawn the astronomers, are ghost towns with the remains of houses and even mummified bodies, some of the thousands of nineteenth-century miners transported to the Atacama to mine nitrate. (Guzmán resists pointing out, but I won't, that nitrate is also the original material of cinema.)
In one fell swoop of his camera, Guzmán brings us history and bones, the stars above the earth in the sky, and below the earth, the mines and impromptu graves in its dark depths. Were that all, Nostalgia would be a terrific film. But that's not all. Slowly we begin to learn more particular histories. The mine housing was put to other uses by Pinochet's secret police, as new experts come on camera to testify: survivors of the Atacama concentration camps. But this is not a Guzmán film of his early career. What Nostalgia offers is a view from above, perhaps not from the stars but not just from the past either. Guzmán slowly knits past and present and future together, conjuring a view of the universe that recognizes interconnectedness as a basic quality, an organizing principle that can surprise and disorient with its revelations.
Just as Nostalgia offers a pair of beginnings, so too does it offer a pair of endings. In one, Valentina, the young woman whose interview Guzmán has saved for last—without a choice, since she took months to agree to the filming—embodies that interconnectedness through her personal trail of tragedy, despair, hope, and in the end, victory. Valentina is the film's Rosebud, in fact, retrospectively conferring an organic meaning upon the preceding hour and a half. Meanwhile, outside of Valentina's room, the paths of the Atacama Desert seekers, the peering astronomer and the digging women who both search for the past, are united through the magic of cinema in the old observatory where the film started, peering into the universe. It is then that the film's own iris begins to close, shutting out the light and leaving us in the dark.
For us, of course, the lights come back on. We are back in the world. But Guzmán's film has not quite ended: There's a postscript that reframes everything we have just seen, everything I have just heard. The Atacama Desert? The name rings a bell. I do the standard googling and then, over our espressos, I spring my question.
Isn't the Atacama Desert the very place where the Chilean miners were so famously trapped and then rescued in the summer of 2010?
And wasn't the rescue directed by Chile's new millionaire president, Sebastián Piñera, whose election just put the very same political parties that supported Pinochet's dictatorship back into power?
And wasn't it the Atacama miners whom Pinochet had murdered for their support of Allende?
Yes, again yes.
Guzmán pauses before elaborating. “It was such a shock to see this man standing in the entrance to the mine, approving this television coverage for his own political interests.” He was as thrilled as the rest of us to see the miners rescued, safe and sound back on the surface. But that hasn’t stopped his questions: “Has the government made any promises to improve the safety of miners in Atacama? Who authorized the operations at this mine that did not even have an emergency exit ladder in case of accident?” Guzmán clearly still cannot quite face the memory of that prolonged televisual spectacle which will undoubtedly become one long campaign ad for Piñera's party in the next elections. I ask whether he saw the Chilean miner in the New York marathon? And that unlocks his final comment: “What is going to happen to those miners, transformed into superstars by the world's attention?” He predicts they'll all be drinking hard and divorced. And then, I think to myself, a television reality-show, “Before and After,” can be based on their story.