There are a series of scenes in the documentary Nostalgia for the Light, directed by Patricio Guzmán, in which one or two or ten women, 60- or 70-ish, are bent over with eyes on the ground, slowly walking, occasionally stopping and reaching down to pick something out of the gravel, turn it over in their hand and either drop it or pocket it. Their posture reminds me of mine of when I’m on vacation by a lake or ocean, combing the shore for agates or seashells. But this isn’t a kind of geologic tourism. This is the Atacama desert in Chile and these women are looking for bones or bone fragments, fabric, or parts of appendages from their loved ones--husbands, sons, daughters, brothers--who were taken as prisoners by Pinochet and killed, their bodies destroyed and distributed who knows where in the desert or sea.
Sharing this same desert land is a world-class astronomy operation employing the most sophisticated telescopes science can offer. The astronomers here are studying light from stars long gone, watching for the universe’s original light.
The reason for this placement of the telescopes at this place is explained by the a view of earth from space in which there is only one patch that is brown and that patch is Chile’s Atacama desert, elevation 10,000 feet. The complete lack of humidity is what makes the sky so translucent, perfect for star gazing and study, and the ground a dessicant for preserving human remains.
In unexpected ways, these stories twist around each other. A man who had been a prisoner of Pinochet and lived to tell about is interviewed in the film. He tells that while in prison he learned to make a small apparatus out of wood that helped him chart the stars. Watching the sky each night, he felt completely free. One of the astronomer explains that calcium in the bones found in the parched ground is really elemental calcium that originally came from stars. Two of the searching women join an astronomer in front of a telescope.
The shots of the landscape and night sky are stunning.
I watched this film (available on Netflix) earlier this week and think it is an interesting film to reflect upon on this weekend we set aside for remembering. The women are looking down, the astronomers are looking up. Both groups are looking for the past and neither group will stop until they find it. Towards the end of the film, Guzmán says,“"I am convinced that memory has gravitational force.”