The Atacama desert situated in northern Chile is a place of great wonder and unspeakable tragedy. The near absence of any rainfall makes its arid terrain one of the driest places on earth. It is almost completely without vegetation or wildlife, and the stone’s distinctive red hue has given it an ethereal resemblance to the sands of Mars. It’s this otherworldly landscape combined with the high altitude and clear, thin air that has marked this desolate wasteland as one of the epicentres for astronomers all across the world.
But the land is tainted by the horrific scars of the past, and there are those who are painfully haunted by it. At the beginning of the mid-1970s, the nation fell under the barbaric dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and the Atacama became the home of the Chacabuco concentration camps. Those who were deemed threatening to the leader’s regime became political prisoners, and those imprisoned would become ‘the disappeared’. Later, mummified bodies of the victims would be found discreetly buried beneath the harsh terrain, but to this day, many are left unaccounted for.
It is the enigmatic beauty of the cosmos and the hideous legacy left behind by Pinochet’s brutal regime that is the subject of Patricio Guzmán’s harrowing documentary, Nostalgia for the Light. The film opens with the voice of director himself, as he reveals his own fascination for the stars as a child, before the cope d’état halted the advancement of Chilean democracy and science. We listen to the astronomers, as they philosophise about the construct of time and space, and describe the unique conditions that have made the Atacama desert an absolute haven for stargazing. Their voices are interspersed with the hypnotic images of the deep depths of outer space. Their grandeur is awe-inspiring and breathe-taking.
But while the astrophysicists study the skies above, there are citizens who scour the ground below, searching for the remains of their loved ones. We meet two such people, both women, both in their seventies, who have become solely devoted to finding the bones of the departed. The time and effort dedicated to this mountainous task is unfathomable, but you can hear from the desperation from their voices that they are resilient in their quest. It is the dreams of the astrologists and the heart-breaking accounts from these women that give Nostalgia for the Light its devastating irony. Both sets are looking into the past for answers, but only one can sleep soundly at night.