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on Mar 16, 2011

“Most of my work refers to the historical memory of Chile and Latin America,” says acclaimed documentarian Patricio Guzmán (Salvador Allende, The Pinochet Case), a Santiago native who has lived in exile for more than three decades, after reflecting on the arc of his long, legendary career. “It’s a passion — creative territory that I have always followed.” Best known for his monumental three-part film The Battle of Chile (1973), an on-the-ground account of democratically elected leftist Salvador Allende’s brief term in office before a U.S.-backed coup d’etat brought dictator General Augusto Pinochet to power, Guzmán has always fought to rescue his native country from cultural amnesia through the art of eyewitness cinema. But his tireless examinations of remembrance (and the violence of forgetting) have been just as trenchant to his many projects.

Guzmán crystallizes these lifelong fixations in his brilliantly self-narrated new documentary, Nostalgia for the Light, a soulful exploration of science, astronomy, politics, and the question of how past and present intermingle in physical spaces, as well as the minds and hearts of the living. In Chile’s Atacama Desert, a coast-hugging ribbon of Martian landscape that is reputed to be the most arid region on Earth, Guzmán discovers a milieu that, while seemingly devoid of life, is steeped in history. Astronomers he meets at the Páranal Observatory, like Gaspar, surveil the night sky utilizing some of the most powerful telescopes in the world, searching for answers about the deep past — Where do we come from? What are we made of? — like archaeologists of the cosmos. In the desert flats surrounding the observatory, veteran scientist Lautaro digs up mummies and pre-Colombian relics, studying the more recent history of humankind. And in yet another torque to the film’s gyre of concerns, we meet two middle-aged women, Victoria and Violeta, who for 28 years have patiently probed the pitiless Atacama sands with small shovels, hoping to exhume the remains of their “disappeared” loved ones, victims of the Pinochet regime. With inexhaustible patience for the stories of those he interviews — nearly all of whom have been touched by the crimes of the post-coup dictatorship — Guzmán creates a somber, often poignant after image of that tragic epoch when hope yielded to corruption, correlating celestial and earthly realities, personal and political histories with magisterial skill.

Filmmaker spoke with Guzmán about nostalgia, poetic expression, and why documentary films can recover our natural sense of time. Nostalgia for the Light opens at New York’s IFC Center on Friday.

Filmmaker: Do you think that nostalgia is the only response we’re left with after the disappointment of revolutionary politics?

Guzmán: Nostalgia is a way of thinking, it’s a way that the soul relates to the past. So for example, in conversations with friends, family, we always talk in the past tense. It is also an analysis of memory, it’s a way to remember the past with a certain fondness. In Nostalgia for the Light, I start the film talking about the place where I grew up — the house, the tea plates, the paintings, the beds — so it’s an atmosphere for people to follow me in for the rest of the film. Nostalgia is also a factor of the light we get from the cosmos, that we get from the stars. It’s that nostalgia that makes us remember that we as human beings are part of the galaxy. Nostalgia for that Chile we have lost somehow, the Chile that was modeled after the French Revolution, the European century of light in the 19th century, that model was very interesting, very democratic, but totally opposed by Pinochet. He destroyed everything. I would go with my mother, she was head of the electoral tables, to deliver ballots. And it was a very honest Chile back then, very democratically honest particularly, and that we don’t have anymore. A lot of young Chileans don’t vote, they feel disenfranchised, they’re disengaged from democracy.

Filmmaker: Nostalgia for the Light deals with two different kinds of histories — that of the stars, our origins as matter and energy, and the history of a very specific political situation in Chile. At what point did you find that this would be a great pairing, these two notions?

Guzmán: The first thing that it’s important to mention is the Atacama Desert itself —  it becomes an important character in the film. There are mines of salt and nitrate, there are petroglyphs and mummies, and there are also dinosaur remains [in the desert], so we have geology, archaeology, and astronomy all in the same place. The astronomers look for the past of eons ago, the archaeologists are looking for the past of 10,000 years ago, and the women are looking 30 years into the past. So this territory is a great set for the film. What happens is that they don’t [intersect], the work of these three different people. They don’t cross. So what I did was mix their narratives to tell a larger story.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me more specifically how you went about photographing the Atacama Desert?

Guzmán: The desert is very difficult to shoot because there is very intense sunlight, so you can only shoot after 6pm or early in the morning. In the Atacama Desert, it looks like Mars. It’s perhaps the one place on Earth that is closest to Mars: the air is very pure and you can see everything so neatly, but at the same time it’s very distorted. For example, you can see a volcano that looks close but it might be 80km away. Katell Djian, our DP, she thought a lot about how to shoot, which filters to use, reflecting on how to make the most out of [these difficulties]. And actually the night is even harder to film, because there is no camera that can film the night. In the Atacama Desert, the night is so strong that you can see the shadow of the Milky Way. If you stretch out your arm, you’ll see its shadow. It was Stéphane Guisard, who’s now based at the Páranal Observatory, who taught us how to shoot the cosmos. He creates photograms — he shoots every 20 minutes, and that creates a sense of movement. And actually he was the one who helped us in that sense, and that’s the way we were able to transmit to the audience that sense of movement, what we were able to see there. So yes, definitely, the desert and the night sky are very difficult to shoot.

Filmmaker: What’s the importance of poetic expression in your films?

Guzmán: It’s a very difficult question, because poetry is intangible. No one can foresee when the poetic act will happen. It’s the same as emotion, it’s really hard to explain. The interviews were very important in this process. I film a person for one to three days, and I never push them in terms of the subject matter. I let them come to it. I never have a script or a paper in my hands when I interview people. I look them in the eyes all the time, and that’s when it becomes a cinematographic act.  That’s when journalism becomes cinema. And that’s also when poetry and emotions come closer. Documentary filmmakers discover these creative atoms – when a car is broken down because its engine is busted, or a woman tries to cross a street while a policeman is looking. The documentarian shoots those moments, those atoms, and they are like loose words. And one makes sentences with those loose words. That’s when good poetry happens. But again, it’s very difficult to foresee. Unfortunately, there’s no formula for it, because emotion is very discreet and in the moment.

Filmmaker: That sense of emotion is related as well to the pensive pace of the film.

Guzmán: Yes. I like slow pacing. I like the conventional dramatic arc — that is, the introduction, development, and climax. I like telling stories from the beginning. This slow pace is needed for poetry; speed is no good for creating it. And actually, documentary filmmaking is good for reclaiming the speed of life—the time of our life is slow, and always has been. It is advertising, the speed of advertising that is artificial, and we are completely bombarded by it all the time, in the taxi, the airplane. We are bombarded by all these messages, and that creates an artificial sense of time.

Filmmaker: There are two senses of watching in the film. For astronomers, their work is an act of deep historical recovery. For Luis, the former prisoner of Chacabuco, watching was an act of freedom, of liberation from his circumstances. How does that play into your ideas about documentary filmmaking, of watching as a political act?

Guzmán: In this concrete case, Luis, who was a political prisoner for one year in the desert, he felt free by looking at the cosmos. For him, the act of gazing upon the stars gave him a sense of perspective that life and existence were bigger than what was going on in Chile at that time. So he became relaxed looking at the stars. I don’t think you can extend his case to other people but that was his stance. Actually, a friend of mine, Davy Zylberfajn from Morocco, made a film about a group of men who were imprisoned for 18 years in the desert. They were imprisoned by King Hassan, who was the father of the current king of Morocco. They were buried under the sand, but they were able to see the stars through a very small opening. So they would take turns every night looking at the sky. And during the day they would also get, through that same space, a tiny ray of light.  They would take turns to feel the heat of the sun. The film is called Vivre à Tazmamart. It’s about a group that tried to orchestrate a coup d’etat against the king, a group of 50 men who spent 18 years in prison, and only 15 survived.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me about the circumstances under which you left Chile in 1973?

Guzmán: I studied film in Madrid. And for three years, I was able to take part in the popular Allende [movement], during which time I was able to make four films. I would shoot pretty much every day. I was detained for two weeks at the national stadium, where I was interrogated and not able to communicate [with anyone]. They left me after two weeks — I was arguing that I was a correspondent for a foreign media outlet and that what I did was irrelevant. So I was never a political refugee; I left as a tourist. But I wanted to finish The Battle of Chile — that became an important task for me. I wanted to show the world the great experiment of Allende. I couldn’t sleep well during the four months I spent trying to recover the material. I didn’t know at the time whether I’d be able to rescue all the [footage]. In the end, I got to Stockholm from Santiago by boat, and if I had lost the material, I’d have lost part of my life, so I was very anxious about it. What helped me is that I had a mission to finish the film. My depression came later, after I had finished the film. That’s when it hit me [that I was] living in exile, and I was in the hospital for three months.

Filmmaker: Were you getting support during this difficult time from your friend Chris Marker, who shipped you the film stock on which you made The Battle of Chile? And did you develop an artistic relationship with him as well?

Guzmán: The Battle of Chile wouldn’t have been made without the support of Chris Marker. At the time in Chile, you could not import anything. No car parts, industrial parts, no film stock. So I asked Chris if he could help me, and I got the material shortly after. We were in good contact at that time. He thought we were being ambitious—I sent him the whole structure of the project—but he was very supportive and optimistic throughout this process. I saw him afterward in Paris. It’s a wonderful relationship, a beautiful friendship, but I realized that Chris didn’t want to have a Chilean son. He’s very solitary, very autonomous, so I retired discreetly from him as a mentor. I didn’t want to overwhelm him.

Filmmaker: How much of your personal story did you share with the women you interviewed for this film?

Guzmán: Every time I interview a victim of torture or a relative, I actually become very self-confident. That enables people to open up, and I feel proud of it. They put a lot of trust in me.

Filmmaker: I found it poignant at the end of the film when we see these women who are searching for their disappeared relatives in the observatory with the astronomer, because for him the present doesn’t exist. We’re always living in the past, and it’s true for these women as well.

Guzmán: I like talking about this sequence. They were very hesitant to meet each other. The women were saying, “We don’t have any education, we have nothing in common with this astronomer.” And Gaspar was also hesitant, saying, “I’m an intellectual, I don’t have anything in common with these women from the desert.” And I was in between, trying to bring both sides together. So when they first met, there was tension. But everything changed when Gaspar told the women that the moon has been witness to human acts for millions of years and knows where their missing relatives are. So the next time they see the moon, he told them, they can ask it where their [loved ones’] remains are. Basically, that broke the ice.

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