With so many choices before me, I have decided on films based on screening times. And so, I saw Nostalgia for the Night yesterday by documentary filmmaker, Patricio Guzman. One of the very best parts of TIFF is that often the director or producer is present for the screening which is followed by a Q&A with him or her.
But first the film. Guzman has masterfully blended a paradox of metaphors. In Chile, there is in the desert a huge astronomy laboratory near Arica. In the documentary, we see and hear astronomers who spend their lives peering into the deep and distant past through their telescopes for the secrets of the cosmos. This is one of the very best places in the world for such exploration because there is no humidity.
Juxtaposed to this is the image of hundreds of women searching in the vast arid desert for human remains. They are sifting through the sand and rock in hopes of identifying remains of a loved one. It is far worse than looking for a needle in a haystack.
In 1973, the democratically elected, socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in the military coup led by Augusto Pinochet. Regardless of one’s view of the legitimacy of the Allende government, we cannot deny the following events. From then until 1990 millions of Chileans were massacred by the military junta of Pinochet. Those who disagreed with the “government” were rounded up and murdered, their remains often being spread out in the desert of simply dropped from helicopters into the ocean. They became known as the disparu [the disappeared]. Today, these women still search for the remains of husbands, lovers, children and parents.
On the one hand, we are treated to marvelous, enchanting views of deep space. We are tiny and, with necks craned upwards, we search the vast skies with our telescopes. The women are tiny and alone in the vastness of the desert. Their heads are bowed down. Occasionally they stop and bend over to examine a tiny shard of rock— or is it bone? How fascinating to then learn that those very stars, so ancient and distant, contain the calcium from which our bones are made! We recall the old adage— As above. So below.
The ninety minute documentary takes time to let us explore the richness of the many contradictory and complementary aspects of these two images. The women are driven to search in the human near-past, to find what happened to their sons and husbands. The astronomers are driven to search in the deep, distant past of the galaxies.
For me, it was all brought together in the story of one woman—an astronomer at the laboratory. Under the Pinochet regime, her grandparents were forced to reveal where their son and his wife were hiding. Otherwise, they would have killed her [the woman, when she was a little girl.] We can imagine their agony in choosing to save the younger life [the granddaughter]and sacrifice their own son. Today, she has her own son. She finds solace in the cosmos, saying that we are all a tiny bit of the process of birth, death and renewal. As above, so below.
At the end of the film, Guzman took questions from the audience, which was obviously deeply affected by the human dimensions of the film. His work is a study of memory. What do we remember? Do we remember the horrors of the Pinochet regime only thirty seven years ago? How can we remember if we cannot find the remains of the Disparu? Do we remember where we came from? In our bones do we know we came from the stars. Is that why we gaze at them? The questions swirl about but we leave in a quiet state of contemplation.
This is the joy of TIFF. It would be most unlikely to see this film anywhere else. Possibly it might get air time on a documentary television channel. Guzman told us that the film has been shown in theatres in Chile with a total attendance of sixty five thousand. The television stations refuse to show it. How else can the questions and the memory be preserved?