Currently the subject of a week-long retrospective (April 1-7) at Brooklyn’s BAM Cinematek, 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 him as one of the leading voices in a 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. The BAM series opens with a screening of Guzmán’s newest film, “Nostalgia for the Light,” perhaps his strongest work yet.
Introspective as it is universal, Guzmán’s lens explores the intersection between memory, history, eternity and the universe in Chile’s Atacama Desert. 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. Guzmán 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 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. For Guzmán, progress isn’t a concept that resides in focusing on the future; it lies in coming to terms with the past by confronting the ghosts of Chile’s dictatorship.
In the second part of 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 1 of the interview was published ahead of the North American theatrical release of “Nostalgia for the Light.”)
Over the last 10 years we’ve seen a sort of a renaissance in Latin American cinema, the most important boom since you began your career. How is today’s Latin American cinema different from the one of your times? How has the Latin American documentary changed?
Today there’s a strong movement of about 30 Chilean documentary filmmakers who have been screening work at festivals. People like Jose Luis Torres Leyva, Cristobal Vicente, Macarena Aguilo, Marcela Said (her new film was at this year’s Berlinale), among others. They’re a talented and eclectic bunch who share a mutual concern for their country.
Argentina has always had great documentary filmmakers, as Brazil and Mexico have. The problem is that documentaries are poorly protected, poorly distributed and many times the works don’t get any circulation. As far as narrative films go, I find Argentinian cinema to be extraordinary. They always have a film or two in Venice, Berlin or Cannes.
It’s true what you’re saying, that there’s a new dawn in Latin American Cinema. In Paris right now Pablo Larrain’s new film, “Post Mortem,” just premiered and has been getting strong reviews. And it’s interesting because I’m old enough to be his father but his film still explores the same issues of memory that are present in my own work.
There is a strong connection between your work and that of some filmmakers from the French New Wave. Apart from being your contemporaries, you ended up living in exile in France and have stayed there as an expatriate. Your connection with Chris Marker is well known, not only as an influence but also as an important collaborator on “The Battle of Chile.” In this film there are strong traces of Alain Resnais, particularly with “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” which started as a documentary itself before Marguerite Duras’ screenplay. Are there any other directors that you are influenced by?
“2001: A Space Odyssey” is a film that marked me for life. Kubrick is a master of the metaphor, of joining elements which have nothing to do with each other at first glance. I also have a great admiration for Victor Erice. We were almost classmates; when I went into film school in Madrid, he was on his way out.
The documentary industry has changed radically since you began your career. From production to distribution and exhibition, the entire model has shifted to embrace digital technology. Where do you see the future of documentary film headed?
We filmed “Nostalgia” with a very high-quality digital camera that gave the film a depth of field comparable to shooting 35mm and a definition that surpasses it. The technology also allowed us to spend less and shoot more. What hasn’t changed is the economic structure. It’s a cinema with low salaries and precarious distribution, where selling your film is totally different than it is for narratives.
What role do film festivals play in this new frontier?
With “Nostalgia for the Light,” we had invitations to Cannes and Berlin and the chance to put the film in competition in Venice. We went with Cannes since we are based in France and it would mean more domestic publicity for the film. Festivals help, but the economic reality for documentary film is still unstable. The experience we had of being rejected by so many television stations is evidence that television has stagnated while the documentary has evolved. Documentary has taken a new turn: subjective, heterogeneous, experimental, creative.
Television has been mired in stereotypes and convention. They don’t take risks, they reject any project outside of their comfort zone. They’ve become afraid and it’s fatal for us. There’s a crisis in television. I turn it on and all I see are reality shows and documentaries about the war in Afghanistan. It’s a profound disorientation from the programmers. This film’s success is a reflection of all the mistakes they’re making.
Why is the television so important for documentary films?
The profits we see from the theatrical exhibition of our films are very limited. With television, however, the returns are significantly more substantial. Paradoxically, “Nostalgia for the Light” won the EUROPA Prize for docs but got a near unanimous negative reception from television stations.
Is online streaming the alternative to television?
It’s a growing alternative, but the revenue coming from it is arriving drop by drop. It’s great for distribution because of how efficient it is, but it isn’t the same as receiving a subvention or an advance from a presale. Preselling the rights for “The Battle of Chile” allowed us to move from Madrid to Paris because it was the first time we had expandable income. Revenues from documentary films today aren’t substantial enough to allow you to work on one project after another or to live exclusively from filmmaking.