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Finding the Past in the Present: Patricio Guzman's 'Nostalgia for the Light'

By KJ Relth

Patricio Guzmán's film Nostalgia for the Light recently won Best Feature at the IDA Documentary Awards on Friday, December 2nd, 2011 at the Directors Guild of America Theater in Los Angeles.

We sat down over Skype with the filmmaker while he was in Paris just before the 27th annual Awards show to discuss his history as a filmmaker, how politics enter into everything, and how his film looks backward to move forward.

(Spanish to English translation provided by Humberto Mendez.)

Synopsis: Director Patricio Guzmán travels 10,000 feet above sea level to the driest place on Earth, the Atacama Desert, where atop the mountains astronomers from all over the world gather to observe the stars. The Atacama is also a place where the harsh heat of the sun keeps human remains intact: those of Pre-Columbian mummies; 19th century explorers and miners; and the remains of political prisoners, “disappeared” by the Chilean army after the military coup of September, 1973. So while astronomers examine the most distant and oldest galaxies, at the foot of the mountains, women, surviving relatives of the disappeared whose bodies were dumped here, search, even after twenty-five years, for the remains of their loved ones, to reclaim their families’ histories.

IDA: You’ve been making films for over 40 years. How did you get started as a documentary filmmaker?

Patricio Guzmán: I studied cinema in Spain. After six years in Spain, I came back to Chile, finding myself inside Salvador Allende’s regiment [in] his pacifist revolution. I was so impressed by the people, with the climate, the popular fervor, the enthusiasm, that kind of collective love that it made me want to start filming reality and give up on the fiction scripts that I had written. The reality in Chile attracted me so much that it made me change the way I wanted to make cinema.

Nostalgia for the Light has many elements of history; it is a reflection of many things. First of all, [it is a reflection] about human matter, about earth matter and space matter [and] the cosmos. This is the central idea. It’s [also] a movie about the past, a movie that demonstrates that the past is the most important thing in the cosmos, and also on earth.

To make a movie about the past, I went to a territory that is all about the past: the Atacama Desert. In the desert, everything is preserved indefinitely: the bones are preserved, the bodies are preserved, the petrified animals are preserved, the dinosaur footmarks are preserved, the mining cities from the 19th century are preserved. There are 80 abandoned cities and towns! There are also the biggest observatories in the world that are only looking at the past. Everything that they see happened a long time ago. And in the same place there were women who were looking for missing bodies from Pinochet’s regime 28 years ago. Putting an accent on astronomy, on archeology, geology and the women who were looking, [this film is about] finding a place where the past inhabits the present.


IDA: How important is politics in your films?

PG: Well, politics is always present in everything, not only in my movies. It’s an element like the atmosphere, like poetry. Poetry is always present everywhere. I think that for a long time I made movies very close to social problems, like El Nombre de Dios or El Caso Pinochet, for example. With Nostalgia for the Light I’ve opened myself more for metaphors, poetry, symbols and allegories than in other movies.

Critics are always pigeonholing filmmakers, saying that there are horror movie directors, romantic movie directors, philosopher directors and militant filmmakers. They gave me the militant filmmaker label. Honestly, I don’t mind being called a militant [filmmaker]. What’s important to me is that it’s a good movie.

IDA: What was your goal with the story? What did you want the audience to walk away feeling?

PG: I wanted the audience to reflect about the importance that the past has in our lives, about the historic past and the personal past, and that the present is so fleeting. This moment [in which] we’re having this interview has also passed, for example. When I finish this interview, it will indefinitely be in the territory of the past. I wanted the audience to reflect on this because the more one analyzes what one has done, the more prepared one is for the future. I think this is very important: to prepare in a calm manner [and] to live without fear. Nowadays, life is has become a collection of fears. We have to overcome these fears, have self-confidence and advance with more tranquility.


IDA: What has the audience reception been?

PG: The Arab audience, the African audience, the European, the American audience all react exactly the same. They come out with the same emotion; [for] the more dramatic moments, they experience them with same intensity. I stay in the back to watch the reactions because they help me see if the movie is good or bad. This movie is universal.

IDA: Your subjects are very candid. How did you convince them to be so candid in your interviews?

PG: A documentary film starts being created on one’s work table, at home. I like to have a scripted documentary very much, even though many people say documentaries are not written, [that this] should be done during filming. I think it’s very useful to write a framework in the form of a story. One may not have gone to where the shoot will take place yet, but one can imagine things, one can think in advance [and] use intuition without being there.

For example, in Paris I discovered a photograph book in which asteroids [look] the same as human bones. Asteroids don’t have a spherical form; they are rocks floating in the solar system that are porous, white, and have scars and lines the same as bones. I thought it would be good to do a scene where I’d combine small bones with asteroids. That was my intuition.

When one is about to film, one has to prove that intuition to be true. I found a very experienced American astronomer in an observatory named George Preston, and he was observing a galaxy where there is calcium. I asked [if it] was interplanetary calcium. He said, “No, no, no, it’s the same calcium as the one in your vertebral column, [the same calcium] that you have in your hands, in your bones.” Immediately I started thinking [that] 20 kilometers from this observatory, women are looking for bones made of calcium. In that moment, my theoretical sequence became real.

When Valentina, the young girl that appears at the end, says that maybe the atoms from her parents are somewhere in the universe--as we never find them--that’s her idea in the sense that she has found her relationship with her parents in the matter that is in the cosmos. She has verified that her parents aren’t dead, that they are somewhere in a corner of the cosmos, transformed into another thing. If I hadn’t found these nine characters, I couldn’t have made the movie. My actors would’ve been the rocks, the desert, the galaxy, etc., and I would’ve told this story. But it’s not I who tells the story. I initiate the film then stop talking. It’s my characters who take the voice; it’s they who take us to the universe where the people disappeared.

IDA: How much of the movie comes by chance when you meet these characters, like George Preston? How much did you deviate from the script once the movie starts rolling and you meet unexpected characters?

PG: One writes a script to try to not let them escape, to focus on the theme. When you get to your location—the desert, in this case—I leave the script at the hotel. I never carry the script. A documentary is always a voyage of exploration. It’s an adventure. I didn’t know if I was going to find the archeologist, if I was going to find the astronomer. I found some of them along the way, some before I started shooting; most I found as I was about to start shooting.

A documentary is always an exercise of improvisation. I have some colleagues who say that making documentaries is like jazz. We all are improvising according to a script that was left far behind as the crew surpasses the hypothesis of the script.


IDA: What is your next project going to be?

PG: I’m working in a movie about the south of Chile, where the soil becomes the sea and the sea becomes the soil. It’s where the continent dissolves in thousands of small islands, and the sea transforms into soil through thousands of canals. I think that this moment, where soil becomes the sea and sea becomes soil is the starting point of my next film. That the sea came to Earth through comets is a very important idea. Not all, but most of the sea came from the outside. And this enormous ocean served so life could be created here, which probably means that life came from outer space. And if the sea held the first life, it means that all this ancient life and all its memory is in the sea. This theme interests me a lot.