Friday, 3 August 2012

Review: Nostalgia For the Light

Before I start I should say that I love film documentaries, especially any about a) space or b) weird places. So I got really excited about seeing Nostalgia for the Light, about the Atacama Desert in Chile, where the air is so thin and dry that you can easily see space. Some of the world's largest telescopes are located there. The dry air preserves everything, so the desert is full of archaeological remains, the still-clothed, mummified remains of prehistoric Indians, their artwork, and roads. It also hides the newer and more awful remains of the disappeared, who were buried there by the Pinochet dictatorship which ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990.

Now, I'm fascinated by what science is discovering about the universe outside our solar system. I'm also really interested in archaeology, and in human rights. So I was looking forward to this film, for more than one reason. But in the end I came away a little bit disappointed.

This isn't to say don't go and see this film. It is a beautiful film, and fascinating. The shots of the desert are amazing, as is the brass and wood telescope on which the Director, Patricio Guzman was first introduced to star-gazing. The pictures of the milky way above the desert are stunning. It is, however, quite a sombre film, and I was a bit disappointed not to get more about the astronomy, or the archaeology.

The main thrust of the film is that everyone in it is digging up the past. The astronomers mine light sent out by the stars, which takes centuries to reach us; the archaeologists mine the pre-Colombian past, and a group of women who lost relatives to the dictatorship scratch the sand with spades, trying to find the bones of their loved ones. Guzman interviews an astronomer: he talks about how thin the present is, compared to the past, and how everything, even a word you said a second ago, is in the past by the time it's been heard.

So far, so good, but the film is really much more interested in the disappeared from the Pinochet era than in either of the other two searches. I felt a bit frustrated with one of the elderly ladies combing the desert, even after some bones of her missing relative had been found. They were known to be dead, but she wanted him 'whole'. The act of combing the desert seemed like a protest, or an act of crazed grief: but what it didn't really seem to be was any way of moving into the future.

This was my central gripe about the film: it seemed to me very much an old person's perspective. It didn't seem to have any sense of the future. There are only two younger people in the film. Both were shown talking about how the dictatorship had affected them. Both worked on the astronomy program; neither was shown talking about that. I felt a bit annoyed on behalf of 29-year old engineer Victor, who worked on the telescopes: he clearly had a job most guys of his age would kill for, yet Guzman seemed to find him of interest only to validate the experiences of his own, older generation.

I was also left frustrated by not being told more about the pre-Colombian mummies, who, weirdly, seemed much more real than the dead of the Pinochet era. Unlike the fading photos from the 1970s, these remains had substance, their thick woven clothes still brightly-coloured. But just at the moment when I thought we were going to be told about these, the film insisted on cutting back to the endless, unresolved grief of recent history.

I do think this was a fascinating topic for a film. I just wonder what it would have been like if it'd been made by Werner Hertzog, instead.

MASSIVE THANKS to the very awesome Watershed for giving me a review ticket, by the way.

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