Humanity’s origins and the darkest recesses of the soul collide in Patricio Guzman’s studied, resonant documentary about the two, very different sides of the Atacama Desert in Chile. On one side, astronomer’s gather in the perfectly dry, cloudless climate and stare into the skies, discovering secrets about the universe’s distant past whilst down below in the cracked pan, a group of slowly dwindling women continue their decades old search for the remains of relatives detained and executed in the Chacabuco mine prison under the brutal Pinochet regime.
Guzman’s film centres on memory, the memory of the universe and it’s origins and the memory of Chile’s recent past, being kept alive by these women and their terrible vigil. The radio telescopes are capable of picking up signals from stars whose light is too faint to reach us, the scientists collate the data and so reach further and further into our past getting fractionally closer to the Big Bang with each fragment. The imagery is stark, these giant antannae, pointed at the heavens. Guzman silhouettes them against the sun or films them with time lapse photography, the wheel of stars spinning in the background. It’s at once beautiful and arresting, charting our scientific acheivements and underlining the cost.
Patricio Guzman, a filmaker indelibly linked with Chile, maintains a brave aesthetic distance, narrating without inflexion and letting the emotion come from deep within his interviewees, when one woman wishes for the scientists to turn their telescopes to the ground to aid their search it’s both heartbreaking and brave. The scientists, in turn, recognise the similarities between themselves and the searchers below. Both parties are looking to the past for answers but, as one scientist puts it, they are not emotionally linked to their search and at the end of another fruitless day feel no pain at the failure. Their boyish excitement about playing with their giant toys and exploring the world in ways no one else has ever had the opportunity to is undercut by the horror of the women’s daily existence. Violeta Barrios is interviewed extensively, eventually recounting the day she found her brother’s foot, inside his shoe and spent the day crying. This is meant as redemptive but just pushes the horrors we can inflict on each other on us heavier still. A darker, more intellectual look at us and what we are capable of, good and evil, does not exist in this genre.
The best documentaries show us worlds the majority never knew existed or unknown facets to worlds we were familiar with. Thus (in recent times), King of Kong showed us how much people care about a score on a video game, Hoop Dreams showed the reality for many kids trying to break into the NBA and Senna took us behind the scenes of the most celebrated racing driver of all time. Nostalgia for the Light does similar, exposing two worlds right next to each other that most of us were, at best, ephemerally aware of. Like Herzog’s brilliant Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a film that had the birth of the soul at it’s very heart, Nostalgia forces an inner look, a glance at who we were, who we are and who we could become. Jesus, it all went a bit 2001 over here for a second….