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Meditating On Meteorites: A Conversation with Patricio Guzmán

The Chilean director discusses his documentary essay, "Nostalgia for the Light".

Patricio Guzmán was born in 1941 in Santiago de Chile.  He studied at the Official Film School in Madrid where he specialized in documentary cinema.  His work is regularly selected for and awarded prizes by international festivals.  In 1973 he filmed The Battle Of Chile, a five-hour documentary about Salvador Allende's period of government and its fall.  Cineaste described it as "one of the 10 best political films in the world."  After the coup d'état, Guzmán was arrested and spent two weeks in the Santiago National Stadium where he was threatened with simulated executions on several occasions.  He left Chile in 1973 and moved to Cuba, then Spain and France, where he made other films: In the Name of God (on liberation theology during the Chilean dictatorship), The Southern Cross (about popular religion in Latin America), Barriers of Solitude (about the historical memory of a small Mexican village), Obstinate Memory (about political amnesia in Chile), The Pinochet Case (about Pinochet's trials in London and Santiago), Madrid (an intimate journey to the heart of the city) and Salvador Allende (a personal portrait).  In 2005 he made My Jules Verne.

Between 2006 and 2010, he developed Nostalgia for the Light and five short films about astronomy and historical memory.  He currently chairs the International Documentary Film Festival in Santiago Chile (FIDOCS) that he founded in 1997.

Nostalgia for the Light situates its attention on Chile's Atacama plateau, reputed to be the world's most arid desert, such that its mountain peaks—at an altitude of 22,589 feet—bear no snow.  Atacama's aridity is matched by its uniquely translucent skies, which afford astronomers their most unobstructed view into the cosmos.  It's said that the Milky Way is so bright there that it can cast shadows on the ground.  Between Atacama's translucence and its aridity, Patricio Guzmán has staged a philosophical alignment and phrased a poetic rhyme: as astronomers hunt for answers in the ancient light of distant stars, the mothers, wives and daughters of those "disappeared" during the Pinochet dictatorship hunt for answers regarding the bodies of their loved ones deposited in the desert, often near the base of the astronomical observatories.

In these equal obsessions with the past, the present seems to exist as nothing more than a figment of imagined reference that becomes unmoored in time without a sense of memory.  Those who have memory can exist in the evanescent moment, Guzmán's documentary suggests, whereas those who do not have memory exist nowhere.  Perhaps the only true difference between these comparable explorations of the past is—as one of the observatory's astronomers admits—after he has searched the past, he can rest easy at night whereas the same relief is never promised the women looking for the bodies of their loved ones.

My thanks to Sylvia Savadjian of Icarus Films for facilitating a time and place to sit down to talk with Patricio Guzmán and to Patricia Beiger for her attentive translations.

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NOTEBOOK: Your documentary Nostalgia for the Light is so richly layered that in our conversation today we're going to be hard-pressed to fully explore its depths; but, we'll try.  In a recent conversation with José Luis Guerín we pursued his statement that without memory, cinema suffers.  Can you speak to your thoughts on the role of memory in cinema?

PATRICIO GUZMÁN: Memory has a gravitational force.  Cinema suffers without memory in the same way that history suffers without memory.  Science would also suffer without memory.  The human race suffers.  The absence of memory produces a global suffering.

NOTEBOOK: Does poetry allow access to memory?

GUZMÁN: Of course!  Poetry has the characteristic that it penetrates all eras and it expresses itself always in all times at the same time.

NOTEBOOK: Earlier this year in a conversation with your Chilean compatriot Miguel Littin, we discussed how the political struggle of Chile has been expressed through poetry and Nostalgia for the Light comports with this practice.  It gestures to the political through the poetic.

GUZMÁN: Thank you.

NOTEBOOK: I'd like to explore some of your film's formal techniques.  First of all, your images of the galactic cosmos: how were these achieved?  Were they images viewed at the observatory itself?

GUZMÁN: They come from two different sources.  The first is from the photographer Katell Dijan.  We also purchased a new camera with a lens that was, perhaps, not too strong but it had very good optics and we were able to take photos of some segments of the sky with that camera.  The other source is that—in the observatory at Páranal—I met a French astrophotographer named Stéphane Guisard.  Stéphane is actually an engineer, not an astronomer, but his passion is to photograph the sky.  At Páranal, he showed me those extraordinary images of the Milky Way in movement and I immediately told him, "Please sell them to me."  What was surprising to me was that in 35mm and HDCam, his images don't vibrate, which means that Stéphane's work is really well done.  He has since become the main photographer at the Páranal Observatory.

There is actually a third source.  NASA and ESO—not the gas company but the European Southern Observatory—have put up on line public domain photographs of space.  Some of them are of restricted use but others you can just take.

NOTEBOOK: The film achieves poetic rhymes that approximate the rhythms of time.  There were many examples, but one which I particularly liked was the equation of dust motes with stars.  You used this visual equation several times as a superimposed overlay in the film.  Can you speak to why you used that visual device?

GUZMÁN: I used that three times.  In an observatory in Santiago I entered an empty dome.  The telescope that was supposed to go in there was never built.  The structure was full of waste.  The dome had some windows along the sides and in the morning the sun came through those windows, like the slanting shafts of light you would see in a cathedral.  We would take the dust that had collected on the ground and throw it up in the air.  For about a minute or so we would have this cloud of twinkling dust that looked like a galaxy.

NOTEBOOK: I had much affection for this image because watching dust motes in rays of light was one of my first meditations as a child.  Their swirling patterns fascinated me.

GUZMÁN: During the whole movie we filmed these takes that were kind of absurd in order to reference the Milky Way without actually having to literally show it.  For example, in the North there are these crystals that—in the dusk hours just as the sun has set—reflect movements of light and shadow that we filmed for hours.  The actual salts of the desert also twinkled in the light of the sun.  We had a small camera mounted on a baton that my camera woman would sweep in slow movements above the surface of the ground to capture these sparkling effects.  The results were suggestive takes of the desert.  We wanted to photograph the matter....

NOTEBOOK: To suggest the cosmos?

GUZMÁN: Yes!

NOTEBOOK: You mentioned that you used this visual device three times in your film.  What was your rationale superimposing this image?

GUZMÁN: There was a moment where one of the characters was looking up to the sky and I thought it would be interesting to surround him in stars.  And when the ladies are talking to the astronomers, it was during the day time and they were not looking at the stars but I thought it would be beautiful to superimpose the stars on them.  It's like an embossment, almost.  I embossed the dust on the image.  It's very easy to do, inexpensive, and an effect you can achieve within two hours at the editing table.  It looks like a much more sophisticated effect than it actually is.  It's an earthy effect.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of the editing table, in your conversation with your friend Frederick Wiseman replicated in the press notes, the two of you discussed the source of the metaphorical analogies made in Nostalgia for the Light and Wiseman was adamant that the metaphors came from your recognition of them; that, indeed, they reflected concerns you have had your entire life.  I want to believe that you have reached an age where you are no longer resistent to the inherent poetry of existence, freeing you to express same in your films.  My question is: does the poetry reveal itself to you in the editing?

GUZMÁN: Poetry and emotion are produced or generated in a magical way.  One doesn't really know how to create the real emotion.  There are stereotypes—things that move you—but, if you set aside the stereotypes the emotion comes up on its own.  The same thing happens with poetry.  Poetry happens when the elements come together to create a metaphor; but—when you're writing the poetry—you don't really know what metaphor is going to come out of it.  There's a sort of manufacturing mystery in poetry and you have to be very careful because cinema has a great capacity to manipulate people.  One has to be very careful to prevent that manipulation from becoming a disadvantage to the film rather than helping it.  One of the ways you can insure that doesn't happen is to basically maintain a slow pace.  The more you stretch out the takes so that they come up and stay longer on the screen—the slower the pace of the film—you avoid the false metaphor, false poetry and false emotion.

Then there's music.  One has to also be careful with using music.  Silence is preferable to music sometimes.  For example, during interviews I never use music.  That's basically all I can say in response to your question.  It's difficult to say, "This is the formula or the recipe to create poetry."  I can't do that.  These metaphors are spontaneous.  Sometimes that poetry starts to surface during the actual filming and not in the editing room.  When I was filming the first sequence about the house I grew up in by focusing on select objects, I could feel the emotion rising within me as I was filming.

NOTEBOOK: What I respect is that—in the manner by which you have achieved the poetry in your film—it likewise allows the audience their own space or their own orbit, if you will, to achieve their own subjective poetry.  The film becomes more of a poetic dialogue between subjectivities.  For example, I collect meteorites as a hobby.  I've long been fascinated by a theme you reference in your film that we are composed of celestial matter or—as the poet Richard Grossinger once stated it to me—we are made up of "the hurled slag of creation."  This is what I think of when I meditate on meteorites.

In Nostalgia for the Light where you set up the visual rhyme between the surface of the moon and the cranial skull to indicate that the calcium in our bodies comes from the stars, I felt a frisson sitting in the audience.  This is such an ancient truth hidden in our everyday skin.  It spoke to me as a poetic moment.

GUZMÁN: Yes.  And it's a shocking revelation.  But what you thought was the moon, was actually the surface of Mercury.  [He smiles.]  It's better.  Because you never find what we've already seen of the moon on the surface of Mercury.  It's completely different but the same thing.

NOTEBOOK: Even more fascinating if you consider the mercurial impulse of poetry.  It's been a honor to spend some time with you today to discuss memory, history and their shadow amnesia.

GUZMÁN: I would like to ask you a question.

NOTEBOOK: Please feel free.

GUZMÁN: How many meteorites do you have?

NOTEBOOK: I've a modest collection, as part of a larger hobby of collecting minerals.  A few of them came from meteorite showers in China and were only identified as meteorites when—during the Cultural Revolution—the peasantry was asked to bring all their metal pots and pans to be melted down for weaponry and the meteorites would not melt.  That's when the officials knew there was something different about them.  I don't come across them too often but I try to pick them up when I can afford to.  They speak to me.

GUZMÁN: How large are they?

NOTEBOOK: They vary in size but are almost all small nuggets.  My largest and my favorite is a piece that has been sliced and polished.  It's quite heavy and looks like stainless steel.  From what I understand, it probably comes from the differentiated core of a meteorite.

GUZMÁN: How fantastic.  They're a piece of the cosmos.

NOTEBOOK: As are your films.

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