Dr. Emma Cox
Department of Drama and Theatre, Royal Holloway, University of London
Clip: Nostalgia for the Light (Dir. Patricio Guzman, 2010)
Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman’s documentary draws oblique but utterly absorbing connections between ways of seeing, remembering, taking the measure of, and ultimately, understanding the past. The astronomer interviewed at the start of this clip from his modest Atacama Desert workplace describes his occupation using a telling metaphor: ‘[w]e manipulate the past.’ In the next moment, an older man, an archaeologist, remarks of the Atacama: ‘[h]ere the past is more accessible than elsewhere’. We hear fragments of a torture camp survivor’s testimony and glimpse his drawings of the now ruined traumascape. Finally, we are introduced to the figures who emerge as Guzman’s primary concern: a small band of women committed to continually remembering their own and their nation’s unresolved history by searching, digging and shifting the landscape for the skeletal remains of loved ones who were forcibly disappeared under the military dictatorship. These four perspectives form the basis for Guzman’s reflections on how the Atacama exists in peculiar tension with itself: once the site of a concentration camp; now the possible repository of unidentified human remains; a landscape dry enough to preserve archaeological records; and also a region of great atmospheric clarity, perfect for visualising the deep cosmological record.
The Atacama serves, here, as a synecdoche for Chile, and in this respect, Guzman’s film examines how a nation can over-determine its own ‘outer’ zones and produce its own ‘strangers’ within. By continuing to enact their largely futile search for bones, the mothers and sisters of the disappeared instantiate the imminence of traumatic history. What Ewa Domanska, in her discussion of the parallel history of Argentina’s forced disappearances, refers to as the ‘non-.‐absent past’ or the ‘past that will not go away (404-.‐05). The women are presented in the film as separate from ‘ordinary’ social life, unwilling or unable to cease their already decades-.‐long search. Their single-.‐mindedness performs their exclusion from the civic sphere and affirms an affective orientation toward the disappeared whose still-.‐ unconfirmed deaths occurred – by definition – outside the law. I want to consider how far it might be appropriate to read the women’s ritualised searching, as presented by Guzman, as self-.‐compelled estrangement that aligns them with the liminal condition of their loved ones: suspended between violently interrupted lives and presumed deaths.