Patricio Guzmán came into prominence in the 1970s with "The Battle of Chile," his epic documentary trilogy recounting Pinochet’s coup to power. The film established the director as one of the leading voices in a new boom of Latin American Cinema, an independent movement of politically active and socially conscious filmmakers who challenged, questioned and defined the historical moment through the possibilities of cinema.
“Nostalgia for the Light” is perhaps Guzmán's strongest film yet. Introspective as it is universal, Guzmán's lens explores the intersection between memory, history, eternity and the universe in Chile’s Atacama Desert. He follows the astronomers who struggle to understand the origins of the universe and the victims of those who survived Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship as they search for the anonymous remains of their loved ones. The desert has unparalleled views of the stars. It's also notorious as the site of multiple, unmarked mass graves where the bodies of Pinochet’s victims were abandoned.
The answers to Guzmán's questions are either lost in the cosmos or under the sand of the desert. Evidence is fragmentary, partial, and inconclusive. The only tangible truth resides in the nostalgia he explores. Progress for Guzmán isn’t a concept that resides in moving beyond the past and focusing on the future, but in coming to terms with the past by confronting the ghosts of Chile’s dictatorship.
In this two part interview, the documentary auteur talks about his most recent film as well as the present moment of Latin American Cinema and the challenges that documentaries face today. Part II of the interview will be released to coincide with an upcoming retrospective of Guzmán's work being held from April 1-7 at New York City’s BAM Cinematek.
What attracted you to the Atacama Desert?
I've wanted to make a movie about the Atacama Desert for a long time. When the chance finally came, I spent four years studying the desert; everything about it I could find, from the mines to the observatories. I had known about the women there for years. They were well-known in the 80s, when a group of a hundred volunteers joined the original 30 from the search-groups. They would comb the desert in hopes of finding the mass graves. Most of them have died since, they are down to around 15 who continue their search.
How did you organize these four years of research and actually make the film?
I began by writing a script. I always write a lot before starting a film because I think it's good to have an extensive understanding of your topic so you can later allow yourself the liberty to do whatever you want with it. The danger there is that sometimes you imagine a reality that doesn't exist. One gets enthusiastic and begins making connections that could exist but that you don't know if they do for certain. So the first thing I did was spend two months in the desert to see if these impressions I had were true.
Your subjects are very candid in this film. Did you do anything in particular to get them to open up to you in that way?,
I don’t like to corner the people in my films into giving me a specific answer. I usually interview them for hours and hours without ever revealing where the interview is headed. I don’t like it when directors bully their subjects to get the sort of answers they are looking for, I don’t think that should ever be done in a documentary.
What was the hardest thing about shooting a film in a desert? Or were the real difficulties with the project beyond the setting?
We had two main challenges. The first was finding the money. When I pitched the project to television stations, they did not understand it at all. We were rejected by 18 of them. Programmers today are so used to comfortable topics and if you go in there with a philosophical/metaphysical/religious angle they think you’ve gone insane. All we heard was “No, no, no,” until we were able to get money from a small diversity of sources but it still wasn’t enough to cover the whole budget. My wife (who served as the producer), our executive producer and I had to make the film without a salary. Otherwise, the film wouldn’t have been made.
The second challenge was Valentina, the young lady presented at the end of the film. She told me she liked the project but she wasn’t ready to share her story publicly. I told her that was fine but insisted that since it takes a long time to make a film, that she could speak to our cameras and tell me later on in the process if she still felt uncomfortable about it. After we finished the first part of the film I went to show her our footage and she was immediately on board. It was very important to have her in the project, without her the film wouldn’t have had an ending.
Although your film deals with (literally) universal topics, it is essentially another very personal film about Chile. Why did you approach the film through astronomy instead of any other topic relevant in Chile?
Because astronomy is fascinating! It’s a way to compare the existence of the cosmos to our own. It’s a way to say that we are not alone, that we belong to the universe. The same materials we are made of are the same materials stars are made of. In Paris I bought a book on asteroids and began photographing bones, comparing the two to see their similarities. I was struck by how alike they were. So when we were shooting the film in Santiago, we asked for a skeleton and filmed all the small bone fragments. What I didn’t know that at Las Campanas we’d find the astronomer George Preston who was already studying a constellation made up of calcium; the same type of calcium found in our spinal column.