Which revolves around the everlasting effects of Augusto Pinochet’s regime. The movie takes place in the Atacama Desert in Chile where there is no record of rainfall in years and which therefore has very low humidity. This quality of the Atacama Desert has made it the perfect place for archeological exploration because thanks to the low humidity, there is very little moisture and thus carved stones, pottery and ruins don’t easily fade away into dust. The desert also is known for having a thin atmosphere that provides clear sight, light, and air which has led astronomers to exploit this place by building observatories and making extensive observations of space (Holden 12).
In addition, the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet was highly destructive and has afflicted the lives of many people. The desert functioned back then as a place to dump the bodies of the political victims of this brutal regime. Since this fact was uncovered, many women have come and are still coming to this place in order to find the bodies of their loved ones.
The movie wanders around these people with three distinct objectives.
The movie was directed by Patricio Guzmán, who is a Chilean himself and is a very dedicated documentary writer and director. He is known for making documentaries that illuminates political and social problems such as Salvador Allende (2004), The Pearl Button (2015), Nostalgia for the Light (2010) and more prominently, his documentary trilogy “The Battle of Chile” (1975) which won multiple awards and ranked among the “Ten Best Political Films in the World’, a list prepared by Cineaste.
After receiving several awards from film festivals such as Cannes, Toronto, Miami and Abu Dhabi, Nostalgia for the Light grew significantly in reputation and even ranked 9th in the list of “The 25 Best Films of 2011” by the Slant Magazine. It was officially first released in theaters on the 27th of October 2010, in France.
What made me choose this documentary as my subject is how well it connects with the audience and what a different perspective it brings to the table.
Bardenstein studies the phenomenon “collective memory” in three different aspects: the illumination of discontinuity, acts of memory and present-orientedness of memory (148-168). Nostalgia for the Light does an utterly beautiful job in transferring the loss the women of Calama have struggled with to the audience. It does so by linking their never-ending search for the bodies of their loved ones to the observations of astronomers and the excavation work carried out by archeologists. The documentary showcases interviews with astronomers and their purpose of finding answers to the unknowns about the universe. Then it switches to archeologists and their mission to shed light on the past. Afterwards, we meet the women of Calama and the documentary connects all these people in a way that makes one think that their goals are fundamentally the same. In a wider sense, they all are trying to fill a gap in the past or complete a lost chapter in order to be able to move forward. It is therefore safe to say that the struggle of the women of Calama correlates highly with the concept of loss. Their somewhat impossible quest for the bodies their loved ones, the disappeared, even if there is no guarantee that they will eventually find them, is a response to their loss and what will make their purpose in the end fulfilled.
Acts of memory occur around points on the memory line which some kind of loss can be associated with. These points must be attributed a specific meaning by the people, they should represent the concept of absence and only then they can be called acts of memory (Bardenstein 148-168). A site of memory is usually a location which people invest with this specific meaning. According to Hirst and Mainer (183-200), in order for an object to be examined in collective memory, it must be implemented with deep meaning even if it is closely linked to the people in a group. The Atacama Desert acts as a site of memory throughout the movie, in that the women of Calama has been coming to this desert for years to find the remains of their loved ones even if it is very difficult, which is known very well by the women of Calama themselves. At one point in the documentary, one of the women mentions that she wishes the telescopes could look into the ground as well. This uncovers an interesting fact: the women of Calama continue to come to the desert even if they don’t know if they will ever find the bodies of their loved ones, they know it is very hard. They come to the desert because the desert is the representation of their hopes and their loved ones who have disappeared. If they ever stopped, it would mean that they accept what has happened and they are okay with it, which is not the case for them. The desert functions as a healing place and their quest is the recipe of their recovery.
Present-orientedness of collective memory represents the relation between the past and the present. The past is inevitably linked with the present on the grounds that any occurrence of collective memory is ignited in the past, however, its effects are seen till this day. This statement seems accurate in the case of the women of Calama. The destructive regime of Pinochet and the corpses it left behind triggered this formation and its effects are seen today as women who never could let go, who are stuck in a loop continuously searching for the remains of their loved ones, that is to say, searching for answers that will make them get better. Guzmán explains this “present-orientedness” splendidly in his movie by showcasing that both astronomers and archeologists deal with the past. In the documentary, a scientist states that it takes time for light to arrive at the Earth from outer space, so every time we see stars, planets or the sun, we see a version of them in the past. At one point he even says that the present does not actually exist. A difference lies, however, in the time gap between the present and the past. Throughout the film, we see that both archeologists and astronomers deal with the distant past, but in the case of women of Calama, their struggle is in a much more immediate past, precisely the aftermath of Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Halbwachs (140) states that collective memory is a continuous process within the concerned group. It can be said that the women of Calama definitely have not forgotten and their purpose is fundamentally to remember, to not forget. Their search has been continuing for decades as it helps them recover, heal and get better. The search is not just a mission, it is the very reason that makes them get up every day and not feel lost. It is their guide to happiness, it is their salvation and collective memory will exist as long as there is someone who remembers.
There are many scenes in the documentary where we can see hints of collective memory. In the very beginning, after showing several images of space, Chile is described with all its glory however, it is, in fact, the portrayal of Chile before the coup. As the narrator talks about Chile and how beautiful it used to be, senses of love, happiness, and joy predominate. But when looked more deeply into this portrayal, the strongest sense appears to be longing. When the narrator talks about old Chile, there is some sadness to his voice on the grounds that he is longing for something that is not there anymore, that is to say, the beautiful Chile is now gone. This is closely linked with collective memory in that collective memory arises from a loss, absence, something that is not there anymore.
In another scene, we see an old woman with white and short hair, Vicky Saavedra, showing the bones of his brother that she has found in the desert. She talks about the time when a mass grave was discovered and she found her brother’s foot. She says that it made her realize that her brother was actually dead and was not coming back. Healing is in the core of collective memory and here we see that after looking for his brother in the desert for so long, she can finally find some recovery, she can accept that this horrible incident really happened. Her actual purpose in searching for his brother is to heal, to let her soul process what happened and she has found the strength in herself to do so.
In a different part of the documentary, we meet with Miguel Lawner, a survivor of five concentration camps during the regime of Pinochet. As he was imprisoned, he drew and memorized the floorplans of the camps he has been in and was able to recreate them when he was free. In Miguel’s case, his remembrance is almost a sacred duty for him. It is his way of coping. He uses his memory as a purpose and accomplishing that purpose in the end helps him get better. He was able to overcome the loss he faced with the mission he designated himself. In addition, the narrator states that Miguel and his wife, Anita, resembles him of Chile, in that Miguel has a strong memory but Anita has Alzheimer’s disease; she forgets everything. According to Jan Assmann and John Czaplicka (125-133), people who forget the past are doomed to do the same mistake repeatedly. As for the case of Anita, she is weak in a sense that she has no strength to recover or learn from like other Chileans who try to ignore their past and what happened in Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship.
All in all, Nostalgia for the Light is beautifully made, well thought and perfectly executed. Bringing a new perspective by implementing astronomers and archeologists to the storyline is a splendid idea which makes the documentary and its subjects connect smoothly as a whole. We must not forget in order to conserve our true identities. Collective memory has a pivotal role in making sure that the group and its memories live on (Halbwachs). In my opinion, Pinochet’s dictatorship and how he made Chileans suffer in those years are being ignored and forgotten. What Guzmán does in this movie is to give a platform to this subject, to state that it is not forgotten and it shouldn’t be forgotten. It is an undeniable part of Chile that shaped the country’s past and is affecting people to this day. To overcome what happened, people must embrace it instead of burying it as deep as they can. Only then will Chile recover truly.