Panel 14, May 31, 2011, 2:00 pm-3:30 pm

Moderator: Richard Phillips, University of Florida
Presenter: Carlos Gutiérrez, Cinema Tropical
Rapporteur: David S. Nolen, Mississippi State University

This panel featured a screening of the film Nostalgia por la Luz, directed by Patricio Guzmán. Carlos Gutiérrez from Cinema Tropical presented an introduction to the film itself and answered questions before and after the screening. Gutiérrez began by explaining that Cinema Tropical was founded in 2001 and is a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Latin American cinema. As part of this mission, Cinema Tropical is involved in distribution and promotion of films, including activities like publicity campaigns, film festivals, and film series (like the one held at the University of Arizona each year). He introduced this film by mentioning Guzmán’s earlier film, The Battle of Chile. Gutiérrez considers Nostalgia por la Luz to be a film essay on theoretical ideas of memory. It was financed by Guzmán himself. Chris Moore (Sol Productions) asked how to order the film. Gutiérrez answered that it could be ordered through the Icarus Films website. Paloma Celis Carbajal (University of Wisconsin, Madison) asked if Cinema Tropical also covered European cinema as well. Gutiérrez responded that Cinema Tropical only works with films from Latin America, which includes films from Brazil but not from the English-speaking Caribbean.

The film focused on the themes of the preservation and study of the past as represented by images and people associated with the Atacama Desert. Guzmán began by discussing the widespread popular interest in astronomy throughout Chile, and how the region of the Atacama has attracted astronomers from around the world because its environmental and atmospheric conditions provide a uniquely suited place to study the night sky.

In a conversation between the director and an astronomer, Guzmán introduced the idea that astronomers are primarily concerned with the past because they are observing light that has traveled over time from distant places in the universe. He also used this conversation to express the belief that the present is actually the sensory perception of the recent past because there is always a time-lapse effect when observing light.

The film highlighted the connections between archaeologists and astronomers. Both groups attempt to reconstruct the distant past from the evidence they find in the present. The Atacama Desert functions as a gateway to the past for both groups: astronomers take advantage of the unique geography to study the origins of the universe and of mankind, while archaeologists are able to study the remains of past civilizations because of the preservation of artifacts caused by the extremely dry desert conditions.

Guzmán used this theme to note the difficulty of the past for Chile. While astronomers and archaeologists work to uncover the distant past, Guzmán asserted that the recent past in Chile is mostly hidden and least considered.

From that point on, the film shifted to the stories of Chileans impacted by the Pinochet regime’s repression, transposing their stories with the archaeological and astronomical research into the past. One segment of the film told the story of political prisoners learning about astronomy while at Chacabuco, the largest prison camp used by the Pinochet regime. The prisoners initially had the opportunity to observe the stars and study astronomy, but were then banned from doing so by the military because of the fear that escapees would attempt to use the constellations for navigation in the desert. One prisoner explained that the study of astronomy simply gave him and his fellow prisoners a sense of freedom. The film identified these men who survived their experience in the camps as transmitters of history.

Another prisoner, who was an architect, explained how he memorized the details of the layouts of five camps that he was in during his time in captivity. He measured the distances by pacing, and then made drawings at night by candlelight. Each morning, he would tear the drawings into shreds and throw them away. By repeatedly drawing and re-drawing the layout of the camps, he memorized them and then re-drew them while in exile in Denmark. When these camp layouts were published, they provided a shocking testimony of the abuses of the camps. Guzmán stated that this man and his wife embody a significant metaphor for Chile: memory and forgetting. The former prisoner remembered what he suffered in the camps, but his wife forgets more and more as she suffers the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

The film reported that the commission charged with investigating the human rights violations that occurred under the Pinochet regime concluded that approximately 30,000 Chilean citizens were tortured by the government. The commission also estimated that as many as 30,000 other victims did not come forward. Guzmán commented that the survivors are continually terrorized by the presence of those responsible in the general population, unprosecuted and unpunished for their complicity.

In another exchange with one of the astronomers, the question of searching for the past is raised again. This time, the astronomer observed that his search for the past allows him to rest well at night, while the search for the past carried out by the women of Calama likely does not allow the same peace of mind for them. He asserted that Chilean society is comfortable with his searching, but is not comfortable with the searching of the women, who continue to walk through the Atacama Desert in search of the remains of their loved ones or others’ loved ones—victims of the violence carried out by the government against its own citizens.

In a series of emotional interviews, several women recounted their searches for the remains of their own family members and the discoveries of remains of other victims that they have made. Guzmán referenced a whale skeleton that he saw in a museum as a boy and contrasted its place of honor in the museum with the anonymity of the remains of the victims of government violence that remain unburied and without a monument to honor them. The remainder of the film focused on the efforts of these women and others to search for the remains of victims and to commemorate the lives of those who disappeared.

The film concluded with the idea that memory is the key to being able to live in the present. Those without memory cannot live anywhere.

Questions & Comments:

Daisy Domínguez (City College of New York) asked if women were leading the drive to locate those killed by the Pinochet regime and bring people to justice because so many men had been killed. Gutiérrez responded that many Chilean men had been involved in those efforts as well, but the women whose male relatives had been disappeared had really taken the lead publicly.

Paloma Celis Carbajal (University of Wisconsin, Madison) asked how Cinema Tropical works with institutions of higher education on the specifics of screenings (such as logistics, funding, and speaker arrangements). Gutiérrez answered that the specifics are done on a case-by-case basis. He mentioned that the French government has a well-established system for offering reduced prices for films to universities to encourage them to organize film packages for tours. He said that Cinema Tropical is looking for ways to work more with librarians and other university organizations for screenings. Celis Carbajal responded that for many libraries, buying the institutional copy is seen as the best way to facilitate this kind of thing because costs beyond that (such as honorariums for speakers) become an issue due to limited library budgets. Gutiérrez suggested that filmmakers and university officials could work together to alleviate some of those issues, such as creating touring circuits where groups of universities collaborated, as well as bringing in local foreign consulates to help with certain aspects of the planning and expenses.

One Response to Documentary: Nostalgia por la luz

  1. […] A major issue is that there is very little knowledge on how to contextualize Latin American film and therefore, to have critical debates. He mentioned, for example, that the New York Times reviewer of “Amores Perros”directed by González Iñáritu loved the film but thought that there had not been any art house films from Mexico since Buñuel. He noted that this is one way that universities can do outreach. Cinema Tropical partnered with the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at NYU and combined screenings with discussion. Cinema Tropical also took screenings to the Arab world and more recently has partnered with the organization called What moves you? They recently started selling DVDs to universities. Cinema Tropical also created a list of the best ten Latin American films (which also mentions 130 films) of the past decade which led to a publication. Cinema Tropical will also publish a book on Lucrecia Martel, the director of “La Ciénaga,” who Gutiérrez recommends highly. He ended by promoting the screening of “Nostalgia por la Luz” (which screened the next day at the conference). […]