As I write this, the United States celebrates Patriot Day, the term used to commemorate the attacks on New York and Washington, DC, of 11 September 2001, usually rendered with the numerals “9/11”, giving the event a somewhat apocalyptic, history-stopping complexion, the sense of a horror totally unsurpassed in the modern era. Those of us with some historical memory recall the “original” September 11, one never given even a whisper or nod in the US mass media. Were it to appear within the American memory, given the current political climate, its victims would no doubt be regarded with derision. I refer to the 1973 US-backed military coup in Chile against the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende. The coup included the bombing of the presidential palace by fighter jets, the killing of Allende (the evidence now indicates that he shot himself rather than fight a last stand with his own soldiers), and the torture and murder of thousands in the immediate aftermath of the coup under the fascist regime of Augusto Pinochet, one of the major criminals of our age. What followed were years of oppression accompanied by ruthless murder, making Pinochet’s Chile the epicentre of rightist terror in Latin America.

During the years of his tyranny, the Pinochet regime exterminated countless thousands (who really cares about numbers? – they weren’t us), dumping bodies into the ocean, rivers, or burying them in odd, deserted places. The US media noted the coup at the time that it occurred, at some moments almost bragging about Allende’s fall, but the US was preoccupied with Watergate, which gave a glimpse of the nation’s criminal nature and other crimes against humanity, such as the overwhelming destruction of Vietnam. The United States had enormous financial holdings in Chile, and wanted its ample natural resources to remain in the hands of US corporations rather than the rascal multitude of the Chilean population. President Richard Nixon ordered then-CIA director Richard Helms to “make the economy scream” by, among other tactics, drawing reactionary truckers into a massive strike. The screaming of the economy preceded by not very long the screaming of the tortured and dying, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ruminating that one cannot allow a nation to “go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people” (1).

All of this has gone down the memory hole, even in Chile. In the US, the coup is today not widely known, and if mentioned treated as something like a fairytale invented by Marxists. As Chile enters the neo-liberal economic era, it too has been compelled by the dominant social order to “move on” and forget the awful past.

Patricio Guzmán has insisted that memory be restored. He has spent much of his career as a filmmaker digging deep into historical memory, beginning with the magnificent La batalla de Chile (The Battle of Chile, 1975-79), a street-level view of the coup itself at it unfolded. This remarkable film, in my view the best documentary every made, paid a high price for its existence and is a great expression of human solidarity – one of its valiant cinematographers, Leonardo Henrichsen, was shot and killed as he operated his camera. Jorge Muller Silva, perhaps the most celebrated photographer associated with the film, was taken prisoner by Pinochet and executed. The late Chris Marker, who now seems central to the international left of the postwar period, helped give birth to the film by donating thousands of feet of 35mm film. Guzmán followed this project with Chile, la memoria obstinada (Chile, Obstinate Memory, 1997), Le cas Pinochet (The Pinochet Case, 2001), Salvador Allende (2004) (the last two covered in other CTEQ reviews) and Guzmán’s most beautiful – and vexing – film to date, Nostalgia de la luz (Nostalgia for the Light, 2010). Some have accused Guzmán of monomania, which may be a measure of how low humanity has sunk, if we are indeed so unable to spot a truly heroic artist.

In the establishing sequence for Nostalgia for the Light, we see a strange metal contraption come to life, its wheels grinding out a loud echo in what seems to be an enormous space that houses it. A Pinochet torture device? The machine turns out to be the undergirding of a huge telescope, one of six housed in mammoth white observatories atop the Atacama desert in Chile, the driest place on earth, so much so it preserves the bodies of pre-Columbian shepherds. Elsewhere in the Atacama are various women, working alone and in small groups, digging in the cracked earth for evidence of loved ones “disappeared” by Pinochet. It is noteworthy that those who dig for bodies are women and those who study the stars are men – certainly there are men who help resurrect the Pinochet era, but one may argue about stereotypes here, with the men dealing with the ethereal world of the mind, while the women are desperately involved in the misery of the here and now.

The film becomes a rather Kantian meditation on the starry heavens above and the moral law within, as Guzmán, who tells us he loved science and science fiction as a boy, shows us staggeringly beautiful images both of the cosmos and the everyday natural world – the more remote reaches of the universe are visible thanks to the thin atmosphere over Chile and the location of the observatories. The film examines two forms of understanding the past, one grand (the origins of the Big Bang and of being itself), the other no less grand but much more heart-rending (the shards of the recent past and the recovery of truth).

The film is not only a study of modes of memory but of the creativity and indefatigability of human mentation. Guzmán interviews Luis Henriquez, a survivor of one of Pinochet’s death camps, who recounts how inmates, under the tutelage of a Prof. Alvarez, studied astronomy until it was forbidden by their jailers. Another survivor, Miguel Lawner, a talented draughtsman, was able to produce compelling drawings of the concentration camp where he was imprisoned by recalling how many feet he covered as he paced its grounds. These moments bring to mind stories of Nazi genocide victims who debated mathematical formulae en route to the gas chambers: the human mind refuses to buckle even as it is destroyed.

Guzmán’s interviews with the Atacama astronomers attempt to link their probing of the cosmos with the equally daunting task of making a nation recall its victimisation. The study of the heavens seems offered as a form of consolation, as a scientist tells us that the stars contain the same calcium as our bones, including the bones of the disappeared lying near the telescopes, suggesting, it seems, that we all “live on” in one way or other. This is an area of the film that I find questionable and a bit bewildering. It is obviously true that the coup remains mostly buried by the neo-liberal economic order of contemporary Chile (and certainly by the United States), and will remain a topic of retrieval by committed, humane people throughout the world. But the women of the Atacama, and the rest of the Pinochet survivors, surely know their own pain, and have clear memories of what happened in the 1970s. Their agonising problem is the need to retrieve pieces of loved ones so callously disposed of by their killers, not historical research. And while science and the love of knowledge have helped sustain Guzmán in his years of telling the story of the coup, his chronicle of truth-finding within the universe may be compelling but less than a consolation to many.

Cosmology has become a popular discipline in recent times, especially as we explore Mars, experiment with neutrinos, and even see time travel as not outside the realm of the possible. But the portions of the film focusing on such matters, to my mind, offer a kind of metaphysical escapism, an everything-is-connected ethos proposed by Guzmán that seems increasingly remote from idea of justice for Pinochet’s victims (and the bar of justice is not very helpful – see The Pinochet Case). The women who dig in the Atacama are invited into the observatories to peer at the stars through the huge telescopes—they are cordial about it, but are they comforted? Is there consolation in knowing that the calcium in the rotting bones of their loved ones exists also in infinity, and that our own lives are somewhat petty when compared to the vast majesty of the universe? I couldn’t help but think of Georg Lukacs’ cautions about the new “religious atheism” of modernity that still clings to what Paul Tillich called matters of “ultimate concern”, by gazing forlornly (sometimes with a studious nihilism) into the void rather than at God. And it is difficult not to recall the solace that the New Left found in stargazing, meditation, macrobiotics, and New Age hobbies, in light of the US’ embrace of the right. But Guzmán has by no means betrayed Chile.

Guzmán has always been a credible thinker, but the sense of the filmmaker as philosopher is most clearly expressed in this film. Humanity must be content, he suggests, with what it learns with given energies and at a particular historical moment. The sense of silence that pervades many of his films is most evident here, conveying that the cosmos is indifferent to the struggles of those who pursue both proximate and ultimate knowledge. In Salvador Allende, we are shown a piece of the eyeglass frames that belonged to Allende – along with a wallet, a ribbon, a watch, and a small notebook with socialist refrains, these are all that remain of his person. The presence of the fragmentary, and the yearning for totality, consumes that film and especially Nostalgia for the Light, making it overwhelmingly poignant. Guzmán offers a not-ironic conundrum: the historical record of the Pinochet coup is fully available to a population that turns its head; the answers to the origins of being, which may not have much to do with making us more fully human, are not yet within reach, but even if available might be greeted with a collective yawn. Both the cemeteries and observatories are, after all, in the middle of a desert.

In the supplements to the superb Icarus DVD of Nostalgia for the Light, we learn of the price being paid by neo-liberal Chile for its avoidance of the inconvenient past. As history books relegate the coup to parenthetical mention, the educational system has proven an almost total failure, with the gap between rich and poor widening, very much on the US model. The challenge for Guzmán and all reasonable people is the struggle to redeem the present as well as restore memory.


1. See Peter Kornbluh, “Declassified Documents Relating to the Military Coup: September 11, 1973”, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book no. 8, The National Security Archive: George Washington University: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/nsaebb8i.htm.

Nostalgia de la luz/Nostalgia for the Light (2010 France/Germany/Chile/Spain/USA 90 mins)

Prod Co: Atacama Productions Prod: Renate Sachse, Meiki Martens Dir, Scr: Patricio Guzmán Phot: Katell Djian Ed: Patricio Guzmán, Emmanuelle Joly Mus: Miguel Miranda, José Miguel Tobar

Cast: Gaspar Galaz, Lautaro Núnez, Luis Henriquez, Miguel Lawner, Victor González, Vicky Saaveda, Violeta Berrios, George Preston, Valentina Rodriquez


About The Author

Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes frequently for Film International and Cineaste. He is currently writing about Bruno Dumont.

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