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This past weekend I went on a film binge and took in a documentary a day for Houston’s Cinema Arts Festival. The highlight for me was Chilean director, Patricio Guzman’s documentary, Nostalgia for the Light, and the accompanying question and answer session with Guzman himself at Rice University’s cinema.

The explosion of do-it-yourself documentaries has at times yielded a slightly static, conventional format: a) find a slightly offbeat subject b) interview as many people as you possibly can c) use nice HD camera work d) slice and splice together the interviews into an often chronological timeline providing minimal context and plenty of self-proclaimed platitudes as to why such a subject is so important e) polish it all off with snappy or understated fonts and music, depending on the weight of the subject matter. Guzman’s film is an antidote and closer to the rarefied Werner Herzog variety with long contemplative images and a heavy dose of an insightful narrator.

In Nostalgia for the Light, the images and their corresponding commentary link together what would otherwise seem like disparate quests to understand the past undertaken by astronomers, archaeologists, and a group of women endlessly searching in the desert for the remains of loved ones who “disappeared” under Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship. What these characters immediately share is that they are all searching for meaning in the Atacama desert in Chile. A geologic oddity comparable to Mars, the Atacama is thought to be the driest desert in the world, and a place where time seems collapsed and frozen. Guzman’s camera lingers on geoglyphs, ancient rock markings made by early South American cultures, and the extremely thin, transparent sky where stars light years away seem freakishly close. Through intensely sublime visual allusions, Guzman links these two major protagonists – the desert land and the sky – and seems to unlock a set of profoundly humanistic truths about a fundamental need to understand the past to live in the present.

But the problem with this need for understanding is that the past, as it is portrayed, is always just beyond human reach and perception. With lumbering, massive telescopes, astronomers myopically scan distant galaxies to find an origin that just becomes another starting point, leading to a new question about how the universe began. Guzman’s film itself follows a similar format where it is presented as if one discovery about the stars or Chile’s deeply troubled past does nothing but lead Guzman down a new path to a new story. He uses his camera akin to how the astronomers use their telescopes, as he slowly scans Atacama’s sand and sky and intermingles these shots with interviews that sift through the stories of survivors of the dictatorship and the astronomers’ findings.

Everything always seems to relate to become a dense web of associative meaning and seemingly magical coincidences. One man recounts his time spent in a prison camp in the desert and how a group of prisoners formed a makeshift astronomy club with homemade tools to find solace and sanity in the stars. A scientist talks about how the stars are made of the same calcium in our bones. It may seem corny to say “we are all made of star dust,” but in this film it takes on new weight as we later witness a woman who combs the desert with a small shovel and her bare hands in hopes of finding the tiniest bone fragments that may turn out to be evidence of her deceased son. Such narrative coincidences are mirrored visually. The surface of a bone fragment takes on the feel of a rocky lunar surface. Simple marbles set on a table are shot to look like planets hovering or orbiting in space as Guzman reflects on his own past and nostalgia for childhood. The sky and the land blur together as similarly textured, vast expanses.

Visually, my only reservation was with the the slightly suspect use of special effects where twinkling stardust resembling sandy glitter is overlaid a scene of an astronomer looking through a telescope with the women who search the desert for human remains. I imagine the opportunity to provide these women with a glimpse into space was joyful and thrilling for Guzman, but the way it was rendered felt a little fake and forced compared to the natural beauty of the place itself. The most amazing part of this film is how Guzman looks so intensely at the Atacama desert and constantly asks exactly what might lie beyond or beneath it. There is a remarkable beauty and intelligence in taking such separate pursuits for knowledge of the past and creating a deep connection between them that would never be apparent on the surface.

Of course, unlike the film, this short writeup does only scratch the surface, and there is probably much more to be said about how the film’s philosophical approach deals with highly charged political subject matter in such a nuanced way. Films like this and the fact that Guzman was actually there to speak already have me already looking forward to the next Cinema Arts Festival.

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