The desert light in the daytime is sharp and destructive, slowly blinding you as you age. I grew up in what had been a desert, and that taught me to love the night, yet I never looked up to contemplate the stars. Perhaps if I had I would have learned to love the desert as Patricio Guzmán.
Guzmán's "Nostalgia for the Light" opens with softly lit scenes of a home, a home that might have been his at a time when Chile was asleep. In my mind, this must be the cool morning before the desert heat and stark noon light has force one to draw the curtains and retreat into the darkness. In the desert of my childhood memories, hot afternoon dust coats my throat, reddening my eyes like sandpaper and I watched tumbleweeds roll through the streets of our semi-rural town, guided by the Santa Ana winds. I remember the stark light and hovering dust of the countryside near my grandmother's farm house where listened to the coyotes howl and watched carefully for rattlesnakes. Perhaps this is why I love the night so much--walking in the night, driving in the night and conversing in the night. I always retreat into the night, but I never looked up into the stars.
The desert is a lonely place where things can be found and people and things can disappear. The California desert was the perfect place for an internment camp called Manzanar and the wider expanse of the Arizona desert was a temporary home for my maternal relatives at a place called Poston. It was a shock for me to see a camp that looked so similar to my eyes in the Atacma desert of Chile in Guzmán's "Nostalgia for the Light." Governments think the same in the U.S. in 1942 and in the 1970s in Chile.
My mother has buried the past, unwilling to reveal what happened there during her time as a government prisoner, but in Guzmán's "Nostalgia for the Light," mothers search for their loved ones, the Desaparacidos. The women--mothers and sisters--look for the hidden graves and the desert is a place where things are easy to hide. Finding a grave can provide answers or more questions.
To understand me, you have to know I grew up in what had once been a desert, close to the Mexican border. To understand my mother, you have to know about the Japanese American internment and how that colors her feelings about the desert. To understand Chile, you have to know there were thousands of people who disappeared in recent memory. They are called the Desaparacidos--The Disappeared. The term isn't specific to Chile. International human rights law defines the Disappeared as a forced disappearance by the state or a political organization. In Chile, people began to disappear soon after the military coup that brought Augusto Pinochet into power in 1973. In this documentary, Guzmán doesn't touch on the U.S. C.I.A.'s involvement in the campaign of political oppression and terrorism that was known as Operation Condor (Operación Cóndor) whose span covered not just Chile, but, among others, also included Argentina. The goal was to eradicate socialism and communism. The paranoia of America's communist witch hunts of the 1950s and the Cold War had moved to Latin America.
Refugees from Chile and Uruguay were kidnapped and tortured in Buenos Aires. Operation Condor was in effect concurrently with the Dirty War in Argentina, when some 10,000 people disappeared--left-wing activists, Peronist guerrillas, Marxists, trade unionists, students and journalists. According to Carlos Saura's Oscar-nominated movie, "Tango" ("Tango no me dejes nunca"), tangos were played to drown out the screams of the torture victims. In this meta-movie, musical stage director Mario Suárez, makes his investors unhappy by including references to repression and torture in his musical history of tango. If you do the math, you'll quickly understand that some of the people working on the actual movie which was released in 1998 lived through those dark days. For Mario Suarez, Saura's alter ego, you can't understand Argentina and lament of tango without acknowledging this twisted history.
Saura isn't the only artist who coupled gunshots with tango, Edgardo Rudnitzky's piece "Tiros" (meaning shots) also uses the sound of machine guns. Such relationships between war and a seductive dance form might seem incongruous without knowing the history of Argentina. Similarly, history has forged unfortunate connections between astronomy, the Atacma Desert and Chile's own Desaparacidos.
Guzmán intertwines his personal story about his initial interest in astronomy with that of political prisoners who, having little else to do, learned about astronomy from another prisoner in the Chacabuco concentration camp in Atacma Desert. A camp survivor, Luís Henríquez recounts how a group of about 20 feel freedom by studying the stars, but the guards feared even this thirst for knowledge and small moment of hope astronomy inspires. Another survivor, Miguel Lawner, used his time memorizing the details of his incarceration so that he could draw the grounds, buildings and scenes of those days for people to remember. Guzmán also speaks with astronomers and archeologists--two sciences that would seem so different yet Gaspar Galaz the astronomer and Lautaor Nuñez both search in the Atacma Desert. For Galaz, the lack of humidity creates a sky so clear that the stars are light light bulbs, burning brighter than city people can know.
For the archeologist, the arid climate mummifies bodies left there. The natural mummies in this desert are those from both the distant (pre-Colombian) and the recent past. While the mummies of all the Desaparacidos haven't all been found, sometimes those that are are only found in parts. Searching for her brother, one woman discovers part of his head and his foot. Would the uncertainty of not knowing his fate be better than having that rotted foot? Is having part of the body like only half-solving a puzzle? Perhaps there will be no closure for many of these mourners in their lifetimes.
Fans of Guzmán already know that Pinochet and his reign of terror aren't new topics. Guzmán's previous documentaries include the 2001 "The Pinochet Case" (La cas de Pinochet) and trilogy "The Battle of Chile" (La Batalla de Chile). The former is about how for the first time in history, a former government leader was arrested based on international jurisdiction. Pinochet was arrested in London in the fall of 1998. He was released in 2000, returning to Chile and dying in 2006. "The Battle of Chile" series came out at a time when foreign language documentaries weren't readily available but thanks to the Internet, you can view these today (DVDs from Netflix or Amazon). The 1975 film was about the insurrection of the bourgeousie ("La Batalla de Chile: La insurrección de la burguesía") and two years later, Guzmán released the documentary, "The Coup d'Etat" ("La Batalla de Chile: El golpe de estado"). The final installment was the 1979 "Popular Power" ("La Batalla de Chile: El poder popular). The films chronicle the political scene in 1973, the election of Salvador Allende and the rise of Pinochet to power, aided by the C.I.A.
Guzmán's website declares that "A country without documentary films is like a family without an album of photographs." He suggests in this movie that to forget is to live nowhere, as if in the haze of senility. At 71, Guzmán is looking back at his films and his life. I don't know how he expressed his view of history in his other documentaries--not having seen them, but in "Nostalgia for the Light," he's given us visual poetry with a socio-political edge. And why not? The stars studied by astronomers are transmissions of light from the past. Astronomers learn from the past and Guzmán reasons so can we, if we are willing to dig for the truth. Consider how much more tragedy you can hear in a plaintive tango knowing that so many loved ones disappeared because of a Dirty War. Only knowing this history can we understand where we have been and what we are. Only then can Americans understand Chile, Argentina and the U.S. Without forgetting we can forgive and look forward to a future are bright as the stars appear from the desert.