Gilbey on Film: In praise of Patricio Guzmán

The Chilean documentary maker comes to London.

Do you think Andrew Rosindell gets out to the cinema much? The Tory MP expressed recently his admiration for the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, so he would possibly take away a different sort of experience than most of us from watching the films of Pablo Larrain (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and the forthcoming No), which address Pinochet’s rule from an imaginative variety of aghast perspectives. Most of all, I would like to see what a Pinochet apologist like Rosindell makes of Patricio Guzmán’s new film Nostalgia for the Light, a documentary essay which draws imaginative connections between the beginnings of the universe, advances in astronomy and the ongoing search for the bodies of those who were “disappeared” under Pinochet. I wouldn’t want to underestimate Rosindell’s ability to squirm and squelch his way out of a sticky spot, but I feel fairly confident that his admiration for the dictator would be challenged by this profound and quietly distressing film.

Until this week, I was unfamiliar with the work of Guzmán, a Chilean documentary maker who is celebrated in a season of films this month at London’s BFI Southbank. His key work is The Battle of Chile, a reportage-based trilogy made surreptitiously (the film stock was supplied secretly by Chris Marker) and smuggled out of the country in 1973 following the 11 September coup. Nostalgia for the Light, Guzmán’s latest picture, plays for two weeks within the season, and will be pitching up on the first day, 13 July, for a post-screening Q&A session.  

It’s a deceptively modest film which reveals only gradually its ambitious scope. “In the glow of the night,” says Guzmán in his narration, “the stars observe us.” That idea of a watchful presence in the universe is explored throughout the picture, and admirers of this director will not be surprised to discover that conscience, history and the act of remembering are afforded the omnipotence that a less secular film might have attributed to a deity. What starts as a product of his long-standing fascination with astronomy moves from the heavens to earth - deep into the earth, in fact - when the focus shifts to the relatives, mostly women, who continue to comb the Atacama desert looking for the remains of their loved ones. The Atacama is also a hunting-ground of astronomers and historians for reasons scientific or anthropological; Guzmán’s skill in bringing these interlinked motivations together is something to behold.

The imaginative leap between our quest for information about the universe and the hunt for answers in the dust and dirt, between celestial bodies and corporeal ones, is illuminating and elegantly made. There is the value of star-gazing as recalled by former prisoners of the desert’s Chacabuco concentration camp, some of whom created an astronomy club while incarcerated. The soldiers broke it up because they feared it would lead to escape. Their instincts were correct in one sense: an ex-prisoner talks of how the stars preserved his “inner freedom.” And the essence of looking at the stars - that is, admiring something which has already expired by the time it becomes visible to us - blurs into the search for the disappeared. Their bodies broken into shards and splinters, some remains still unsorted and unidentified in boxes which contain what Guzmán calls “the remains of remains”, they too transmit messages from the past which change how we regard the present, and our place in it.

There is no danger of the different quests in the film becoming directly equivalent, but it’s still helpful when one astronomer remarks on what separates his search for answers from the one carried out by the grieving women: “We can sleep peacefully,” he says. One woman, whose brother was killed, longs for the apparatus used by astronomers to be deployed for her own cause: “I wish the telescopes that look into the sky could see into the earth.”.

Nostalgia for the Light is a genuinely transformative piece of work, cinematically inventive and politically urgent. Once you’ve seen it, check out this  fascinating and through interview with Guzmán courtesy of Filmmaker magazine.

"Nostalgia for the Light" is released on 13 July. The Patricio Guzmán season runs at BFI Southbank from 13 to 28 July.

The beginning of Augusto Pinochet's coup in Chile, 11 September 1973 (Photo: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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“Minoan pendant”: a new poem by Mark Granier

“Yes – I press my nose / to the pleasantly warm glass – / it’s a copy of one I saw / cased in the cool museum”

Yes – I press my nose
to the pleasantly warm glass –
it’s a copy of one I saw
cased in the cool museum –
gold beaten to honey, a grainy
oval dollop, flanked by two
slim symmetrical bees –

garland for a civilisation’s
rise and collapse, eye-dropped
five thousand years: a flash
of evening sun on a windscreen
or wing mirror – Heraklion’s
scooter-life buzzing and humming –

as I step in to browse, become
mesmerised by the warm
dark eyes of the woman
who gives her spiel and moves
softly and with such grace,
that, after leaving, I hesitate

a moment on the pavement
then re-enter with a question
I know not to ask, but ask
anyway, to hear her voice
soften even more as she smiles
and shakes her hair – no.

Mark Granier is an Irish poet and photographer. He is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Haunt (Salmon).

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink