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Lest we forget
Jerry Whyte reviews Patricio Guzmán's NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT and commemorates 11 September 1973 by considering what the Chilean director's work tells us about the importance of memory.
"In the sky of the cinema, people learn what they might have been and discover
what belongs to them apart from their single lives. Its essential subject – in our
century of disappearances – is the soul, to which it offers a global refuge."
John Berger, Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye
"Every moment of our lives we move among institutions, problems, and challenges
of which we have barely caught the tail end, so that the present is constantly reaching
into the past. We keep crashing through the floor . . . into the cellars of time, even
while we imagine ourselves to be occupying the top floor of the present."
Robert Musil, A Man without Qualities



Patricio Guzmán first made his mark on world cinema with his monumental, three-part, four-and-a-half-hour-long epic, La battala de Chile/The Battle of Chile (1975-79). An unparalleled masterpiece of direct cinema, it documented the last year of President Salvador Allende's Popular Unity government, and the US-backed Pinochet coup of 11 September 1973. Although he has spent over half his life in exile since that ignominious day, Guzmán regularly returned to his native land, and that turbulent period, in his films – most notably in Chile, la memoria obstinada/Chile, Obstinate Memory (1987), La cas Pinochet/The Pinochet Case (2001), and Salvadore Allende (2004). That 'trilogy of memory' and Guzmán's breakthrough trilogy together form a coherent whole that ranks among the great achievements of documentary cinema. It would tempting to group the two trilogies as a 'quartet of memory', but for the fact that Guzmán had already filmed the early, optimistic stages of Chile's democratic revolution in El primer año/The First Year (1971) and La Respuesta de octubre/October's Response (1972). Few directors have ever recorded a particular political era with such tenacity, over such an extended period, or with such magnificent and significant results. Writer Ariel Dorfman, once a cultural adviser to Allende, says of Guzmán's political films: "They will be considered, for many centuries to come, one of the most eloquent and bold explorations of revolution and repression, of hope and memory, of overcoming tragic times. What Guzmán passionately and sharply observes serves for the whole world." These films, endlessly exploited as source material, testify to cinema's capacity to remember on our behalf and to shape political consciousness. In documenting the explosion of popular energy that accompanied Allende's dreams of "a peaceful transition to socialism," the coup that destroyed those dreams, and the repressive terror that followed, Guzmán defied a dictatorial state's attempts to erase hope from history.

Despite those achievements, it would be wrong to categorize Guzmán as a purely political director who 'merely' recorded momentous events. There is, granted, a naïve didacticism about his early agitprop films, but that's only natural; these were films forged in the furnace of revolution, as a concrete cultural response to a concrete political situation. By the time he came to edit The Battle of Chile in Cuba, though, there was sufficient distance between the director and events to allow an artist's vision to shine through. After completing his masterpiece Guzmán, understandably, fell into a deep depression lasting years, but once he returned to the fray he produced a steady stream of films, in which his restless exploration of the past fans out from the political to range across wide cultural and autobiographical terrain. As he penetrates ever deeper into the dense undergrowth of memory, the poetic sensibility that informs even his most engagé work becomes ever more evident. He never relinquishes politics in favour of poetry, rather, he imbues the former with the latter.

An overarching concern with retrieval, recuperation and restitution naturally lends his work a sense of infinite sadness, but that melancholic tone is offset by a vivacious curiosity particularly pronounced in his lesser-known film-essays. Whether he is perusing Chile's connection with literary history in Robinson Crusoe Island (1999) and My Jules Verne (2002), or painting delicate micro-historical portraits in Pueblo en Vilo/A Village Fading Away (1995) and Madrid (2002), Guzmán's collagist enthusiasms are always infectious. Writing in The New Yorker Pauline Kael said: "Seldom have great films arrived as unheralded as The Battle of Chile." It might equally well be said that everything in the septuagenarian director's prolific career prefigured and heralded Nostalgia de la luz/Nostaglia for the Light (2010), with its perfectly balanced blend of the personal and the political.

Guzmán's latest film is both an extension of his search for the universal truths hidden in the past, and a reiteration of Milan Kundera's belief that "The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." Nostaglia for the Light is one of the most lucid, luminous, mesmerizing and moving documentaries of recent years. It earned a Best Documentary award from the European Film Academy and a Best Feature award from the International Documentary Association. It is easy, though, to see why Guzmán struggled for five years to secure funding for the film, despite his international reputation. One can but smile at the reaction of potential backers to a project that mixes anthropology, archaeology, astronomy, cosmology, geology, philosophy and politics. "What is it exactly?" asked the startled French producers who had willingly backed many of the Chilean's earlier films. Well, among other things, it is a film about time and the importance of memory that sheds light on the difficult questions of who we are and where we come from. Nothing if not audacious, it picks at and peels away layers of the past as few films have. Guzmán notes the contribution Chile's nitrate mines made to the chemical origins of cinema, digs into his country's recent past to raise questions about the origins of our current political dispensation, and interviews astronomers trying to track the origins of life to the 'cosmic dawn' after the Big Bang.

Life and Death, Sand and Stars

Although grounded in the trembling heat of Chile's vast Atacama desert, where groups of women still search for the remains of loved ones murdered by the Pinochet regime, Nostaglia for the Light soars into the cool enormity of space to probe the universe's infinite beauty. In his gently meditative commentary, Guzmán describes the Atacama desert as "a gateway to the past." The driest place on earth, it is, as such, a magnet for archeologists, a museum of memory in which the bones of our ancestors are as perfectly preserved as those of petrified mollusks. As relatives of los detenidos-desparecidos/'the detained-disappeared' sift sand for human remains, archaeologists scour the desert for traces of the herdsmen who drove their charges across it 10,000 years ago and of the miners who toiled beneath it a century ago to excavate the nitrate used in fertilizer and celluloid. Many of those miners were massacred in company towns during the 1907 strikes suppressed by British mine-owners and many were among the pampinos who founded Latin America's first left-wing political parties. Forebears of the 33 men trapped beneath the Atacama in 2010, they worked mines later converted into concentration camps by the Pinochet regime. The connections, continuities and catastrophes of history are deeply embedded in the desert.

The Atacama's dry climate helps the archaeologists and the women mentioned above as they dig into the past, but its geography and climatic conditions serve astronomers equally well. Because of its unpolluted atmosphere, high altitude and limpid light, the Atacama is home to the world's most advanced optical and aural astronomical installations. It is a mecca for astronomers. They flock to the desert to look at and listen to the universe. The astronomers, like the archeologists and the relatives of 'the disappeared', come to the desert in search of answers. They too study the past. As Gaspar Galaz, a young astronomer wise beyond his years, explains to Guzmán, the cosmic light we view has travelled millions of years, light years, to reach us. Galaz also reminds us that the temporal distance between looking and seeing also affects the moving image. He says: "The camera I'm looking at is already in the past." Cinema shows us people from the past, using light that emanates from the past. Even the words we use, those we watch the two men exchange, these words too, arrive from the past – thought taking time to formulate, transmit and receive. None of this denies the present tense of experience, but it does remind us that meaning comes from remembering and that things would seem meaningless without memory. Time present, Galaz and Guzmán insist, is composed of time past. As William Faulker says: "History isn't dead: it isn't even past." In Nostalgia for the Light, as in all Guzmán's films, the past is always present and memory is always given the attention its importance merits. In the keynote line of the film, he says: "Memory has a gravity that attracts us; those with memory can live in the fragile present, while those who have none live nowhere."

Erasure and Closure

As Guzmán weaves together the complimentary metaphors of archaeology and astronomy, he builds a convincing case for a holistic, reverential approach to the cycle of life that situates the need to remember at the heart of our common humanity. Nostalgia for the Light is as beautiful as it is thought-provoking, as hopeful as it is harrowing. It invites us to relish the sublime even as it urges us to face unpleasant facts. Guzmán transforms our cinema seats into those of a planetarium, from which we gaze, enraptured, at kaleidoscopic images of our galaxy and the billions beyond it. He then transports us to the desert's deserted mines, sites of death and historical trauma. As we marvel at the mystery of the universe, we also marvel at the strength of the survival instinct and the courage of those who resist organised forgetting. Luis Henriquez survived the Chacabuco concentration camp. "A transmitter of history," he recalls the sense of complete freedom he and twenty fellow inmates felt as they secretly studied the stars while imprisoned. Another survivor, Miguel Lawner, "the architect of memory," demonstrates how he measured the five camps he was detained in, stride by stride, memorizing their dimensions, in order to draw them one day. While in Chacabuco he had drawn the camp by candlelight, before tearing up his sketches for fear of raids. Miguel is "a metaphor for Chile": as he remembers, his wife, Anita, who has Alzheimer's disease, is forgetting. Miguel, like Guzmán, and like the indefatigable women searching for evidence of the existence of those Pinochet sought to erase, stubbornly refuses to forget. So, too, does archaeologist Lautaro Núñes, who describes the marginalization of Chile's indigenous Indians as "practically a state secret". One imagines Guzmán nodding assent when Núñes says: "We've hidden away our most recent past . . . It's as if that history might accuse us."

Nostalgia for the Light is visually stunning, but the dignity of those Guzmán interviews lends the film a different level of beauty: men like Luis, Miguel and Lautaro; women like Valentina Rodríguez, Victoria Saavedra, and Violeta Berríos. Valetina is an astronomer who was raised by her grandparents after her parents were murdered by the military. The DINA, Pinochet's secret police, had cruelly forced Valetina's grandparents to make a horrific choice: either they must surrender Valentina to certain death or reveal the whereabouts of her parents. Lingering close-ups of the elderly couple force us, as we watch the sit in silence, to contemplate the emotional impact of that choice and wonder how they coped. Valentina deals with her own pain and sense of loss philosophically, envisaging her parents as a living part of a universe in which matter is endlessly recycled. Victoria deals with things differently. She was reunited with her brother, José, when parts of him – a fragment of bullet-shattered skull, some teeth, a foot bone "still in a burgundy sock" – were discovered in a mass grave that had been clumsily excavated by troops trying to hide the evidence of executions. Victoria refuses to rest until she has all of her brother, "the remains of the remains," and until justice is done to his memory. Interviewed by the feminist website WeNews, she said: "When you lose someone and you don't know where they are, you can't have closure, or a true mourning. That mourning is so important, because otherwise you continue to wonder 'what if they didn't kill him,' 'what if he's still alive?' And that uncertainty kills you inside." Violeta is also 'seeking closure' by looking for remains of her brother. She wishes that the telescopes pointed at the skies could be trained on the desert sands to aid her in her ongoing search. She echoes Lautaro Núñes's damning comments on Chile's amnesia when she says of herself and other relatives of 'the disappeared': "We are Chile's leprosy . . . the lowest of the low." The Sisyphean search of women like Victoria and Violeta reminds the best of Chile of the crimes committed by the worst of Chile. Like Guzmán himself, they speak truth to power and deny a pitiless state the right to rewrite history by erasing people and ideas.

Hope Against Hope

Although Nostalgia for the Light is full of heartbreaking, angering insights and interviews, it is leavened with hope and wry humour. The darkness it describes is illuminated by human as well as celestial beauty. Although it is a serious-minded film about serious matters, and although it makes most other films look frivolously childish, it is not heavy-handed.  Watching it never feels like hard work. Even when expressing his evident passion for astronomy and archaeology, Guzmán never hectors us. As he demonstrates how these disciplines aid our search for meaning, we feel less as if we're attending a lecture and more like we're eavesdropping on a conversation among friends. Guzmán's narration is warm, wistful and poetic. The melancholic, melodic piano accompaniment that punctuates Guzmán's commentary adds to that feeling of warm intimacy, while perfectly placed sounds underscore his meaning. As the camera pans across a dilapidated mining shack the jangling notes of a suspended row of spoons stirred by a soft breeze replicates the sweet trebles of Chinese wind chimes. Elsewhere subtly sinister sounds insinuate a sense of unease in keeping with the film's sombre subject matter. The wheels of a huge telescope clank metallically like prison doors being slammed shut. A train roars across the screen, its mournful horn wailing across the empty desert as if crying for the dead. Certain images are as haunting as the soundtrack: the domes of the observatories look like the giant-sized helmets of fascist troops, the desert's lunar landscape and the rocks it contains remind us of the distant stars, a skull filmed in close-up looks like the surface of a planet filmed from afar. All sense of scale is lost as we lose ourselves in such images, just as all sense of scale is lost as we gaze at the universe.

© Richard Payne/

One of the most joyful moments in the film is the one when two of Chile's 'lepers', Victoria and Violeta, join Gasper Galaz in an observatory, to peer, like excited schoolchildren, through a huge telescope. The astronomer clearly sympathises with their situation and ruefully observes that society seems better able to comprehend his scientific search for truth than empathize with that of the two ageing women and their companions in suffering. Such small but significant examples of human solidarity and sympathy reflect the film's attitude of hope against hope. Despite his understandable emphasis on the problems of his own country, Guzmán believes that we are all citizens of the galaxy as well as of the world, connected both to one another and the wonders of the universe. As if to emphasis that point, he introduces us to a young engineer, Victor González, a 29-year-old "child of exile" born in Germany to Chilean parents, whose mother provides physical therapy to victims of torture. Victor works with the team of scientists constructing ALMA (the Atacama Large Millimeter Array), the new observatory being built nearly 17,000 feet above sea level. Once completed next year, ALMA will be the world's largest astronomical facility. It will contain 66 huge radio antenna stretched out over 10 miles, giving it a resolution ten times higher than the Hubble telescope. That technology will enable astronomers to survey stellar history and study the first stars, which exploded hundreds of millions of years ago. The array edges us closer to answers about the origin of life. As Spanish philosopher Jesús Mosterín says, ALMA arrives at a time when "the "windows into the universe are being thrown open." Most of us now live in cities, cut off from the spiritually sustaining beauty of starlight by hazy clouds of light pollution. Most of us live in societies cut off from the politically sustaining beauty of utopian possibilities by hazy clouds of despair and disinformation. In shining light on those darknesses, Guzmán's film goes some way to restoring our obscured vision. You don't have to be a scientist or a socialist to find Nostalgia for the Light truly 'awe-inspiring'. Anyone awake to the vast and varied richness of life, with its horrors and wonders, will find it deeply moving and endlessly fascinating. It is a film to watch and watch again, at home if need be, with others in a cinema if possible, at a crowded open air screening beneath starlight in summertime ideally.


Few critical voices departed from the consensus view that Nostalgia for the Light is a gorgeous and powerful film. This can be taken more as a reflection of the film's merits than as a reminder that reviewers tend to play follow-the-leader in their collective approach to cinema. There were few dissenting assessments of the film, but the August issue of Sight & Sound, admirably, contains opposing views of it. In an appetizer for the magazine's new 'for and against' Forum section (launched in its September edition), Chris Darke and Tony Ryans reach strikingly different conclusions about Nostalgia for the Light. Darke begins his well-informed feature on the film by calling it, "A work of wonder and horror," while Ryans, in his more concise review, declares it, "essentially moribund." It is a shame Ryans wasn't allocated more space to develop his argument that "no amount of grandstanding makes the film's metaphor cohere." It is a shame, too, that those two heavyweight critics weren't allowed to slug it out in Sight & Sound's Forum feature. I guess it was all a matter of space, time and timing. It is left to documentary director John Conroy [The Secret Policeman's Ball (2006), Doctor's and Nurses at War (2008), Ross Kemp in Afghanistan (2008)] to deliver the most challenging critique of the film.

Writing on his own blog, Conroy, points to the central dilemma of Nostalgia for the Light and Guzmán's work: to what extent can we force the past to serve the demands of the present without becoming subsumed by it? Conroy says: "In Nostalgia for the Light memory, the past and a profoundly nostalgic yearning to inhabit it have become the point of departure, the terrain of contemplation and action . . . the past – without the need to negotiate living, shifting and conflicting actors – offers both emotional solace and an ability to assign clearer moral signposts; it is an anchor. For Guzmán the past is a safer place to be than the messy world of contemporary Chilean politics . . . the past has become a place of retreat." While making a series of salient points, Conroy often chases his tail. In characterising the past both as sight of struggle and place of retreat he pens a perfect non sequitur; in accusing Guzmán of a quietist retreat into the past he raises interesting questions that he partially answers himself. Elsewhere in his review, he talks about watching a BFI screening (which I also attended) of The Battle of Chile. Contrasting the intoxicating sight of workers recognising "their own intellectual and social power" with "today's arid contemporary political culture," Conroy concludes that the film's footage of people power might provide a salutary lesson to contemporary cynics doubting human agency. He refutes his own case by pointing out that Guzmán reminds us of people and political possiblities that the dominant culture would have us forget. His films constitute an important intervention in "the messy world of contemporary Chilean politics," in which the past is still a 'live' issue, as the recent protests surrounding screenings of the hagiographic flick Pinochet demonstrate. In recuperating the real meaning of freedom of choice, Guzmán also issues a challenge to the widespread forgetting on which Late Capitalism thrives. I'll now look at how that imposed forgetting operates and set Guzmán's films in the contexts from which they arose.

Chile, Obstinate Memory

Several weeks ago, shortly before my personal and professional life was swallowed whole by the London Olympics and Paralympics, I had the pleasure of hearing Patricio Guzmán speak at a one-day symposium dedicated to his work. The event was part of a fortnight-long Guzmán season scheduled by the British Film Institute to coincide with the UK release of Nostalgia for the Light. Titled The Battle of Chile Yesterday and Today, that 'Study Day' reflected Guzmán's emphasis on the past by tracking the Chilean maestro's career back to the film with which he established his name. Season curator Michael Chanan and critic Chris Darke, Guzmán and his wife-cum-producer Renate Schase, joined a small but enthusiastic audience in NFT3. During the day we watched Guzmán's Madrid, Ken Loach's contribution to the anthology film 11'09'01 – September 11 (2002), Michael Chanan's Three Short Films about Chile (2012), and excerpts from A Valparaíso (1965) – a Joris Ivens and Chris Marker film, on which Guzmán worked as a cameraman while still a student. A Valparaíso is almost impossible to find and see, which grieves me for various reasons, some intensely personal. [Valparaíso was the birthplace of both Salvador Allende and Augusto Pinochet, and the cradle of the 1973 coup. It also has a special place in my family’s history. My late grandfather, who worked on the Elder Dempster-owned ships of the Glen line, regularly sailed between Liverpool and Valparaíso. I inherited a love of Everton Football Club (‘The Peoples Club’), from him and my father, so, I was gobsmacked when I learned there was another Everton FC, on the other side of the world, in Valparaíso (hence the expression: ‘Once an Evertonian, twice an Evertonian’). Granddad probably watched the Chilean Everton play when he was on shore leave in Valparaíso on his many trips there after the war. If he did, he might have stood on the terraces beside Salvador Allende, who was an ardent Everton fan and even played for the club. Me and my Dad certainly watched both Evertons: a couple of years ago we were at Goodison Park, Liverpool when Everton played Everton in a pre-season friendly, for the Brotherhood Cup. It was a game we couldn’t lose! Among the crowd of nearly 30,000 that night were 2,000 Chileans who had made the 15,000-mile round trip for the historic match. It seemed all that football, and life, should be about: loyalty, love, mutual respect, friendship, camaraderie, and solidarity. I’ll never forget shaking hands, after that emotionally charged game, with a fellow Evertonian, an elderly Chilean whose eyes were brimming with tears and who was wearing an Allende T-shirt.].

In one of the panel discussions, Guzmán talked passionately about the problems facing documentaries in securing funding and, more importantly, distribution. It is a subject close to Guzman's heart. He regularly teaches documentary filmmaking, works tirelessly as an ambassador for the form, and, in 1997, he founded the International Documentary Festival of Santiago (FIDOCS). Under his directorship (1997-2006) and continuing guidance, the festival has grown exponentially. Like Guzmán himself, it influenced and inspired the new wave of Chilean filmmakers that grew up either under authoritarian rule, cut off from world documentary and pounded by propaganda, or in the atmosphere of censorship and self-censorship that persisted into the post-dictatorial period. Sadly, Guzman's films, all of which were banned in Chile during Pinochet's seventeen years in power, were mere whispers, back then, within a pervasive silence about the past. Silence instils ignorance. In 1998, the conservative La Tercera conducted a survey of young Chileans that revealed the extent of the dictatorship's success in staunching the free flow of information and ideas. 35 per cent of those polled had no idea what happened on 11 September 1973, 42 per cent had not even heard of Salvadore Allende. Those findings emphasize the importance of Guzman's work as a corrective to widespread disinformation and the lack of information. Despite that depressing reality and despite the distribution problems he mentioned, Guzmán appeared optimistic about Chilean cinema. Replying to a question about the new wave from a young Chilean woman, he spoke of a large pool of directors determined that the Allende years and its dreams, the dictatorship and its victims, be remembered. Chilean cinema's capacity to deal openly with the past has progressed slowly and steadily in the period since 'the democratic turn': from the first films to tentatively touch on the subject of the dictatorship [Pablo Perelman's Imagen Lantern/Latent Image (1988) and Ignacio Agüero's Cien niños esperando un tren/100 Children Waiting for a Train (1988), which appeared in Sight & Sound's Greatest Films of All Time poll, courtesy of Guzmán's vote], through films that directly questioned the nature of Chile's forgetfulness [like Ricardo Larraín's La Frontera (1991) and Gonzalo Jusininao's Amnesia (1994)], to recent films tackling the Allende years and the dictatorship head on [like Andrés Wood Machuca (2004) and Pablo Larraín's Pinochet Trilogy – Tony Manero (2008, Post Mortem (2010), and No (2012), which won the Art Cinema Award of Directors' Fortnight at Cannes and which will receive its British Premiere at the 2012 BFI London Film Festival].

The same woman who asked Guzmán about Chilean cinema at that BFI event went on to provide a graphic demonstration of Guzmán's influence. Clearly moved by powerful memories, she described the experience of watching The Battle of Chile as a revelation. It was, she said, like seeing her country's history for the first time. Her recollections recalled a remarkable scene in Chile, Obstinate Memory, the film in which Guzmán returns to his native land to interview Chileans marked by the momentous events of early 70s. At one point in the film he screens The Battle of Chile to an audience of undergraduates who grew up with the official, expurgated version of Chilean history. After the screening he turns his camera on the shell-shocked students to record their stunned reaction. Some are rendered speechless, others are reduced to tears. A passionate young woman weeps as she says, "I feel proud of my people . . . even though we failed," a compassionate young man sobs as he says, "I don't understand how men can be so barbaric . . . killing a family because it doesn't think like you." [The innocent anger of those students sprang to my mind, in 2006, during the wave of student demonstrations against the iniquities of Chile's privatised education system, protests on a scale unseen in Chile since the Allende years]. Those responses, and those films, testify to cinema's potential to change our view of history and shape political consciousness. The Battle of Chile, in particular, defends memory against forgetting.  Ever since it was released, that groundbreaking, heartbreaking film has testified to cinema's capacity to record history and stood as the standard behind which generations of committed cineastes have rallied. Guzmán says of his first internationally acclaimed work: "The experience of making (that) film marked us for the rest of our lives. Everything else is a figure of speech." It is impossible to understand Guzmán's work without referring to the events the film records, historical currents that shaped not only Patricio Guzmán but the new Chile and the modern world. They are, like Nostalgia for the Light, worth returning to time and time again.


Part 2 >

Nostalgia for the Light
Nostalgia de le luz

France / Germany / Chile / Spain / USA 2010
90 mins
Patricio Guzmán
Meike Martens
Renate Sachse
Katell Djian
Patricio Guzmán
Emmanuelle Joly
Miguel Miranda
José Miguel Tobar
Gaspar Galaz
Lautaro Núñez
Luís Henríquez
Victor González
Vicky Saaveda
Violeta Berrios
George Preston
Valentina Rodríguez
New Wave Films
release date (cinema)
13 July 2012
release date (DVD)
10 September 2012
review posted
11 September 2012