Of Stars and Scars

AFS Doc Nights: 'Nostalgia for the Light'

Of Stars and Scars

Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán has often lamented the scarcity of Latin American documentaries: "A country without documentary films is like a family without a photo album." Though he left Chile in 1973 following the military coup (he eventually settled in France), the now-70-year-old filmmaker has certainly done his part to provide his homeland with a "photo album." Of the two dozen features and shorts he's made, he's probably best known for The Battle of Chile, the highly acclaimed five-hour documentary he made in 1973 chronicling the short-lived Allende government before it was brought down by the Pinochet-led junta.

His latest film, Nostalgia for the Light – actually, more of a meditative essay – is a poetic exploration of memory, nostalgia, and the past. The film is set in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, which, at 10,000 feet above sea level, is one of the highest and driest deserts in the world. Guzmán's film makes a larger metaphorical statement about our search for continuity as he mingles the stories of three groups who simultaneously search the desert for three seemingly noninstersecting aspects of the past. There are the astronomers who utilize the desert's perfect conditions to study the solar system through their powerful radio telescopes; they explain that astronomy is really a study of the past because light emanating from the stars takes thousands of years to actually reach Earth. Archaeologists study a more conventional embodiment of the past in the form of the perfectly preserved pre-Colombian drawings found in desert rock. Lastly, the desert is a man-made receptacle for a more recent and tangible form of the not-so-distant past – the scattered remains of Pinochet's "disappeared," the political enemies who were tortured, murdered, and dumped there. Since the Eighties, a steady but diminishing number of family members sift through the sand for the remains of relatives.

Austin Chronicle: You have described the Atacama as "a great box of memory." What are the challenges of shooting in the desert?

Patricio Guzmán: The major problem of shooting in the desert is the huge quantity of light.

AC: How does a poetic film such as this come together? Do you start with a script?  

PG: Poetry came up while I was writing about the idea. I wrote what I call "an imaginary script" of 30 pages that took four years to finish. The allegories, the metaphors, the symbols, came up by writing and became larger by shooting and editing. Poetry is impossible to invent before it appears. This moment is always a mystery.

AC: Thinking about documentary film today, are you any happier than you used to be about today's films?

PG: I like very much Fred Wiseman's, Nicolas Philibert's and Richard Dindo's work. Today, documentary films have evolved in its language. But to produce it is still a tragedy. Nostalgia for the Light had been refused by sixteen TV channels. ... The real problem is that television does not program documentaries. There is no efficient cinema distribution. Documentary is still seen by a lot of professionals as a minor filmmaking art. They are wrong.

AFS Doc Nights presents Nostalgia for the Light on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 7pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz (320 E. Sixth). See www.austinfilm.org for more info.

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Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán, Patricio Guzman, AFS Doc Nights, The Battle of Chile

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