Chile and the Traps of Memory

June 30, 2011

Nostalgia for the Light, a documentary film by Patricio Guzmán (Icarus Films), 2011, 90 mins., Spanish with English subtitles.


Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán’s, elegiac yet hopeful new documentary, Nostalgia for the Light, locates its themes—the demands of memory and the need to move forward—within a framework that is alternately universal and individual. The stunningly beautiful film explores how the past shapes and gives meaning to the present. Shot in Chile’s Atacama Desert, Nostalgia knits together the narratives of three groups of people, each of whom has come to the desert on a quest to recover the past: astronomers looking for the origins of the universe, archaeologists tracking the routes of the earliest humans to traverse northern Chile, and a group of women searching, heartbreakingly, for the skeletal remains of relatives whose bodies were dumped in the desert by Augusto Pinochet’s soldiers. While these three quests are initially linked only by virtue of geography, Guzmán ultimately suggests that they are part of the same process.


“Why are some places better for the study of the past?” the archaeologist Lautaro Nuñez wonders. “It’s a real mystery.” But he is convinced that the past is more accessible in the Atacama than anywhere else; it is a “gateway to the past.” Because of its thin air and unobstructed views of the universe, the Atacama has attracted some of the most sophisticated astronomical observatories in the world, beginning in the 1970s when the Las Campanas telescope was built. The desert’s tremendous aridity has also made the Atacama a haven for archaeologists searching for the mummified remains of the first humans who crossed its baked sands. Finally, because of its isolation and hostile environment, the Atacama became a place where Pinochet’s military could hide the bodies of “disappeared” victims.


While we often think of astronomy as futuristic, explains Gaspar Galaz, a young astronomer, it is more akin to history. “The past is the astronomer’s main tool,” he explains. Deep-space astronomers work with signals from stars that were emitted billions of years ago. When they receive light or radio waves from distant stars, they are reading signals from the past that are analogous to the remains left by earlier wanderers, which contemporary archaeologists often find in the Atacama’s sands. For Galaz, in fact, everything that occurs literally happens in the past, “even if it is a matter of a millionth of a second,” since what we see is not the object but its (delayed) reflection absorbed by our optic nerves and transmitted to our brain. In fact, the “present doesn’t exist,” he argues. “That’s the trampa.”


Travel to and from the past has been the trampa (trap or snare) in most of Guzmán’s documentaries. His trilogy, The Battle of Chile (1975–79), recorded the closing, bitter months of Salvador Allende’s presidency, giving viewers worldwide a sense of the hope that Allende’s election inspired in millions, as well as a blunt view of the challenges he faced. Guzmán was arrested and ultimately forced out of the country after the coup, and, like many exiles, the bloody overthrow of Allende opened a hole in his heart, something he would work to close after civilian rule returned in 1990.


In his monumental Obstinate Memory (1997), it is Ernesto Malbrán, a professor, who guides us through the complexities of memory work, serving the same role as the archaeologist Nuñez in Nostalgia. For Malbrán it is memory which is a trampa. Memory must be a round-trip voyage, un viaje de ida y vuelta, he argues, if we are not to become trapped in the past. The dilemma for Guzmán is how to indicate the gravitational pull of the past without letting it become a black hole. The astronomer Galaz sums up Guzmán’s challenge: The present is “a thin line,” he observes. “A puff of air would destroy it.”


While memory is the central consideration of Nostalgia for the Light, Guzmán approaches it more metaphysically than in his previous films. George Preston, an astronomer working at the Atacama observatory, suggests that we are, quite literally, made of the past; we are composed of solar calcium that has been traveling in space for billions of years. It is a trope that Guzmán deploys visually, permeating many scenes with what look to be dust motes floating through the air, but we can well imagine them as the particles of calcium that ride the light beams and disseminate throughout space. They are particles of the past that link us through our very bones to the universe. The curiosity of archaeologists who uncover human remains in the desert and that of astronomers who search for our origins in the stars are both a part of this insatiable drive to uncover the past.


For Guzmán, then, the greatest paradox of all is that Chile adamantly refuses to consider its more recent history. Although he overstates the case when he suggests that “we hardly know anything about the 19th century,” he argues persuasively that the 1973 coup that ousted Allende and installed the region’s most notorious military dictatorship immobilized the country’s historicizing impulse. Between those who have a stake in hiding the past, those who find it too traumatic to remember, and those who just “want to move on,” there is little momentum to grapple with the last four decades. Guzmán, though, uses an unlikely tool to pry open the doors to the past: a telescope.


Guzmán is deeply influenced by the historian Pierre Nora’s concept of lieux de mémoire, objects or places that seemingly absorb the past in order to deliver them later as memories, much as a stone on the desert floor will store the day’s heat only to yield it to a passerby who kneels to pick it up. In Guzmán’s Salvador Allende (2004), we remember the fallen president through his wallet, ID card, and watch. In Obstinate Memory, Rodolfo Muller remembers his murdered son, Jorge—Guzmán’s cinematographer in The Battle of Chile—through his light meter. In Nostalgia, the lieux de mémoire is a telescope, an old German one that Guzmán looked through as a child. Here the director turns the telescope away from the skies and toward the Atacama Desert itself. Here’s what he sees:


• The Chacabuco concentration camp, the largest run by Pinochet. Chacabuco was a 19th-century nitrate field that, with the collapse of nitrate mining, was used by various Chilean governments to jail dissidents, mostly members of the Communist Party. Pinochet would fill the camp with 1,800 prisoners. One of those was Luís, a doctor and amateur astronomer. Luís helped the inmates build instruments to track the constellations in the pristine desert sky. Looking at the stars, Luís says, “we felt completely free.” In an anecdote that could have come from a Roberto Bolaño novella, we learn that the military banned the astronomy lessons, convinced that the prisoners were studying the constellations to plot their escape. For Guzmán, though, Luís is a “transmitter of history,” who, “by conversing with the stars . . . managed to preserve his own inner freedom.”


• Miguel, a prisoner held in five different concentration camps. An architect, Miguel would meticulously trace out the dimensions of the various camps he found himself in. Each night, he reproduced them from memory on small pieces of paper that, when he was finished, he would tear into strips and flush down the camp latrine. But they remained engraved in his memory, and when he got out he reproduced the camp plans in such detail that the military—which had destroyed the camps after the prisoners were removed—was dumbstruck. As if to juxtapose the demands of remembering with the inevitable erosion of memory, we see Miguel and his wife today, he continuing the work of remembering while she, an Alzheimer’s patient, forgetting more and more.


• A group of women, walking on the desert with small shovels in their hands, like astronauts left behind on the moon. For 17 years, Pinochet buried the bodies of thousands of political prisoners in the desolate Atacama Desert. Unlike the 19th-century miners whose graveyards are uncanny oases in a sea of sand, Pinochet’s executed prisoners were hidden with no markings to orient the mourners. And when it became clear that relatives would search for the bodies, Pinochet had them dug up and moved or thrown into the sea. But the process of excavation was incomplete; some bodies still turn up, along with heads and feet (those parts of the body likely to hang over the edge of the backhoe’s shovel as it scooped them out of the earth). Women like Victoria and Violeta, profiled in the film, have been wandering the desert for almost three decades, looking for the bones of their loved ones. There is probably no more heart-wrenching moment in the film than the view of one of the women, a small silhouette against the immensity of the desert—it might as well be the moon—with a tiny shovel in her hand. If only they could take one of the grand telescopes in the Atacama, one of them muses, and point it at the ground to help find her family members.


Memory is a trampa. These few remaining women who traverse the Atacama’s empty spaces cannot stop looking. “I don’t want to die before I find [my brother’s body],” one remarks. What does it mean, we have to wonder, for these women to have devoted their adult lives to finding their family members’ remains? Is this a price too high? Galaz, the young astronomer, acknowledges that doubt and adds that many people will say, “It’s in the past, enough is enough.” But in an act of great empathy, he imagines what it would be like if his parents were lost in the immensity of space, drifting like the dust motes that inhabit Guzmán’s scenes. He would surely use his telescope every day to search for them. And Nuñez, the older archaeologist, observes that if his child were disappeared by the regime, “I would be morally obliged to preserve his memory. We cannot forget our dead.”


It would be easy enough to leave us teetering on this very thin line between the impossibility of forgetting and the necessity of moving on, waiting for the “puff of air” to blow us one way or the other. But Guzmán suggests that the memory trap can be sprung through his profile of Valentina Rodríguez, a researcher at one of Chile’s most important astronomical organizations. In 1975, the one-year old Rodríguez was detained with her grandparents by Pinochet’s police, who threatened to kill her unless the grandparents led them to her parents’ house. The grandparents finally acquiesced, and Valentina’s parents were rounded up and disappeared; Valentina was brought up by her grandparents. It is hard to contemplate the layers of guilt, complicity, rage, and sorrow that could have buried this family. Rodríguez even talks of herself as having a “manufacturing defect.”


But she has survived and grown because her grandparents were able to give her a double perspective. They made her parents an important reference point for her, passing their values on to her, but they were also able to overcome their pain to give her the space to have a happy childhood. As an astronomer, she now sees herself as part of a cycle that didn’t begin and won’t end with her. In this context, she says, understanding the larger past helps her parents’ absence “take on another meaning and frees me a little from this great suffering and this great pain as I feel that nothing really comes to an end.”


Rodríguez’s ability to overcome her grief is a product of holding fast to those particles of the past that made her what she is today; they are the cosmic calcium infusing her bones. Similarly, what Guzmán brings forward from his own past is not the pain of seeing what Ernesto Malbrán in Obstinate Memory called the shipwreck of Allende’s government, but the hope sparked by that period. “This time of hope,” a product of the Popular Unity’s noble adventure, “is forever engraved in my soul,” he observes.


There are some memory holes in Guzmán’s own work. He romanticizes his own childhood as a time when “life was simple, nothing ever happened, and presidents walked through the streets without protection.” That era, he notes, came to an end when a “revolutionary tide” swept over Chile and carried it into the world. Maybe as a childhood memory the past remained simple, but historians continue to unearth the complexities of the decades before Allende was elected president. Still, Guzmán’s exhumation of our cosmic relationship to the past is remarkable as much for its lyrical beauty as for what it helps us understand about our absolute need to look back if we are to move forward. In the end, memory, like the distant stars observed by astronomers, has a gravitational pull of its own. “Those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moment,” Guzmán argues. “Those who have none don’t live anywhere.”



Steven S. Volk is Professor of History at Oberlin College and a member of NACLA’s Board of Directors. Look out for an interview with Patricio Guzmán at



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