I don’t remember the exact context, but I do still have memory of the feeling when I came to the deep realization that it is impossible to live in the present because all thought, all response, all understanding exists in the past, even if it’s an infinitesimally small distance in-between that present moment and the first thought it elicits. We are ever presently engaging in the past and it’s this revelation that forms the foundation of Patricio Guzmán’s documentary Nostalgia for the Light.
His entry point is the thriving research being done in the Atacama Desert in Chile by astronomers. These scientists that gaze into the celestial realms often depicted as visions of the possible future of humanity are actually forever engaged in studying the past. Even the light of the closest interstellar body, the moon takes moments to reach Earth, leaving these astronomers studying lights that reach us after minutes, hours and days.
These studies of the heaven are tied to the earth as Guzmán looks at the equally thriving scientific research of archeologists who are uncovering ancient artifacts pristinely preserved in the dry climate of Chile. Both archeologists and astronomers are still looking to answer the same basic question rooted deeply in the past: where did we come from?
While the scientific inquiry provides an interesting bridge into this philosophical pontification of the importance of the past, where the film takes off into the most fascinating and intriguing material in the film is when Guzmán shines a light on the paradox of Chile, a place in which scientifically thrives in a study of history, but one in which the government hopes to repress the dark past of atrocity which still haunts Chile to this day.
Guzmán approaches this material in two different ways, the first is by delving into the history of what happens, with a basic overview of the history, outlining a very generic depiction of the totalitarian regime that took over Chile and threw many political prisoners into concentration camps. Guzmán isn’t interested so much in the details, but how this past has effected and formed Chileans today.
He explores this notion by going into personal testimonies of various people who were affected by these concentration camps, the son of one family forced into exile, the daughter of two parents who were imprisoned and killed, one of the political prisoners who survived and a number of the wives, daughters and sisters of the prisoners who have scoured the desert for almost two decades searching for the remains of their loved ones.
In addition to all these explorations of the past, Guzmán weaves his own personal history into the story, a native of Chile himself, he offers occasional insights into his own past to make an addendum. But most of these interludes are ruminations on his childhood, moments from the past that he aesthetically ties to the vessels he uses to explore the overarching theme of the past.
Nostalgia for the Light is a tightly woven tapestry, a document that illuminates the importance of history not by preserving one particular artifact of history, but by examining why our past is so important and how it impacts and changes who we are and how we relate to the world. It’s a beautiful, tantalizing illustration of a deep philosophical truth, a film of deep illumination and piercing insight.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing