Cuerpos Celestes / Celestial Bodies

Laura Huertas Millán on Patricio Guzmán
Published in Terremoto Magazine
February 29, 2016 — Issue 5 : Todas las Fiestas del Ayer

Laura Huertas Millán examines Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán’s enquiry into the inscription of political history in nature within his recent film productions.

The arid mountains of the Atacama desert fly through the window. North of Chile, 2001. Judge Guzmán is searching for the bodies of those whom Pinochet disappeared. Three volcanoes stand in the back of the landscape. The film begins with a journey to what could have be an archaeological site. But we´re not searching for any ancestors’ remains in this part of the desert. The judge says, this investigation is one step closer to social peace. Isabel Reveco, a forensic anthropologist, calls up the image of two naked bodies found right there in 1974, with their heads turned toward the volcanoes. Two small, delicate pieces of human bone are seen in her hands. It gives me peace, says a woman seated near an excavation site. I feel his presence, I feel rage, I feel sadness. This was my son when I saw him for the last time and now I’ve seen… I’ve seen nothing. I think that I’ve seen nothing. I’ll be left with the memory that I came and that maybe my son ended up here. She hides her eyes behind thick sunglasses. Filmed in close-up, projected on a big screen, her framed face becomes a monument. She wears a black-and-white photograph of a young man around her neck.

The first four minutes of Patricio Guzmán’s El caso Pinochet (The Pinochet Case; 2001) are so dense they could be the incipit of his three subsequent works: Salvador Allende (2004), Nostalgia de la Luz(Nostalgia for the Light; 2010) and El botón de nácar (The Pearl Button; 2015). Various motifs that move through the director’s work inscribe themselves onto our retina and lodge firmly in our ears: the open settings, the faces, words, a journey, investigations and pain, which appears to be blind: I haven’t seen anything, the mother says. The 11 September 1973 coup lies at the heart of all three works. The history behind that era’s dictatorship in Chile, and its consequences, come back relentlessly, perhaps because they are the origin of his cinema; Guzmán’s first motion picture dealt with the first year of leftist Salvador Allende’s presidency. Chris Marker, who happened to be passing through Santiago, had seen it and later had provided him with a pair of film reels to start a new project. Shooting that second picture reached a high point on the very day of the military coup. Guzmán was held prisoner for fifteen days in Santiago’s Estadio Nacional. He managed to be released, get his hands back on the filmed footage and get out of Chile. La batalla de Chile (The Battle of Chile) — a trilogy released between 1975 and 1979 and which sealed the director’s fate as a permanent exile — came out of those rushes.

Salvador Allende marked my entire life. I would not be who I am today if he had not embodied that utopia of a more just, freer world that circulated in the Chile of that time. I was there as an actor and a filmmaker. So says the director in voice-over, in the eponymous film about the man who changed Chile and who ended his life cornered by his own nation’s military brass in the Palacio de la Moneda, Chile’s executive mansion. The conservative forces that organized the coup wanted to exterminate a fledgling system that proposed a new social and political vision, Marxist in spirit, that aspired to national autonomy and to defending the values of the left. The dictatorship’s victims were largely from the filmmaker’s own generation — people who at that point were barely adults. They were literally attacked and genocide was not enough; rendering invisible, torturing and murdering these young bodies was, among so many other semantic horrors contained within such gestures, a message in abstentia but nonetheless clearly directed at the Chilean nation and the world, in the context of the Cold War at its height. The coup and subsequent state-sponsored terrorism were attacks on youth as a symbol, as representation and as ontology. Jóvenes de diecicocho años — eighteen-year-olds —, says a man in the first scene of The Pinochet Case, referring to the bodies they’re looking for in the desert.

It’s not a history you forget. Thirty-one years later, in his film Salvador Allende, Patricio Guzmán asserts, The past does not pass. It reverberates… The famed Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño —also from Guzmán’s generation and also detained for several days and exiled after the coup— declares in his Caracas speech (1999) that “ to a great extent everything that I have ever written is a love letter or a letter of farewell to my own generation, those of us who were born in the ’50s and who chose at a given moment to take up arms (though in this case it would be more correct to say “militancy”) and gave the little that we had, or the greater thing that we had, which was our youth, to a cause that we believed to be the most generous of the world’s causes, and it was perhaps, but then turned out that it wasn’t. (…) All of Latin America is sown with the bones of these forgotten youths. ” Both Bolaño and Chris Marker (mainly in his film Le Fond de l’air est rouge, from 1977) never ceased(self-)analyzing, and harshly, what a militant, leftist youth implied. Patricio Guzmán’s cinema does not concentrate on that process quite so much, but it is clearly anchored in a process of mourning this original trauma that catapulted him into cinema; anchored in a process of victim recognition and in resistance on the part of families — in particular the mothers his filmmaking honors time and again. It is cinema obsessed with memory, with reparation and with writing history, which could be a “ love letter or letter of farewell to a generation ” as well.

The word generation comes from the Latin generatio, derived from genus, whose first definition is “origin, extraction or birth. ” It contains a dual semantic movement, designating a collective, a group of people born within the same time swath, at the same time it evokes a genesis. In work completed since 2006, the year Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet died, a new narrative device emerges in Guzmán’s films that lends even more meaning to that word’s dual-natured oscillation.

Nostalgia for the Light begins by portraying an enormous telescope that is being prepared to look into the beyond, through the transparency of the Atacama desert sky. It is a place so dry that it naturally mummifies corpses. The remains that lie in these lands do not decompose. There, astronomers rub elbows with historians and archaeologists, but also with a group of women that never cease moving across the territory. Thus the film links two literally and figuratively sidereal searches. On one hand there are scientists from all over the world in Atacama, in search of the echoes from the Big Bang that are still rattling around some corner of the universe. Then there are the mothers of the disappeared in search of their children’s remains, dismembered and scattered across 105 thousand square kilometers of desert. Both investigations play out on an infinite scale, like needles in a haystack, and both are linked to a notion of origin. The beginning of life itself, say the astronomers; and by extension the future of the human race, through an extraterrestrial search. The women who are looking for their loved ones’ remains, search for the origin of their pain, the narrative that hides behind absence. And in the third place, what is looked for and what is recounted is also the origin of Patricio Guzmán’s filmmaking.

Chile was a haven of peace, far from the rest of the world. Santiago slept at the foot of the mountains, with no connection to the earth. I loved science-fiction stories, lunar eclipses and looking at the sun through a piece of smoked glass. Nostalgia for the Light evokes memories of the filmmaker’s childhood and the desire that lies inside the long-distance observation of celestial bodies, a cinematic projection that originates in stories of travels through time and space. The even more intimate origins of a cinematography. Nostalgia for a time that was still ignorant of the horrors to come, where it was still possible to imagine other worlds. Photographs of the universe taken by Stéphane Guisard, with musical accompaniment by Miranda and Tobar, create a vibrant homage to spacetravel movies and establish the film’s timeframe, deeply imbued by the disquiet that lies at the borderline between life and death. It is in this film that Guzman’s cinema manages its most impressive transitions, passing from images of a galaxy in movement to an indigenous mummy, a petrified body whose empty eye-sockets look straight at the camera.

This cosmic vertigo of origin and end, from cosmos to skull, leads to thoughts of melancholic iconography. Melancholia, a Latin term derived from the Greek μελαγχολια (literally, “black bile”)is one of the four humors that, according to Hippocrates, inhabit the human body. Subjects in whom that humor predominates are (more) given to states of affliction and despondency. A cosmic sadness later characterized as the “Saturnine nature,” Durer portrays it in his 1514 engraving Melancholia I, from the Meisterstiche prints series, as a meditating and vexed winged figure. Spread all around are (among other items) geometric instruments of measure and tools for astronomical studies. Far off, a star illumines the sky and a rainbow frames a beyond that in the engraving appears unreachable and regulates the image’s entire composition. A figure that crosses all of Western culture(s)’ political borders, the iconography of melancholy associates anatomy and the heavens; the infinite with small, vulnerable human life; and humors and transformations proper to nature — entropy. The “ black sun of melancholy ” i.e., the emotional eclipse Gérard Nerval enunciated in his poem El Desdichado (1854), resonates with one of Nazi mysticism’s symbols, the “ black sun ” formed by three swastikas. Roberto Bolaño’s work repeatedly exposes the corrosive nature of this dark iconography, for example when the infamous Ramírez Hoffman writes some dark verses across the sky in Latin with a Luftwaffe Messerschmitt aircraft (Nazi Literature in the Americas, 1996). Almost mocking the German Romantics — such as Novalis and Caspar David Friedrich, who see a projection space for Stimmung (i.e., “humor,” “mood”) in infinite natural extensions. If Roberto Bolaño and Patricio Guzmán strike us as two very different planets in the same galaxy, one can nonetheless note a recurrence of figures like the desert and the sky in works by both artists. Where Bolaño sinks into the obscurity of the fascist aesthetic to look at horror straight on, Guzmán goes in the opposite direction, staring insistently toward the victims’ side.(...)

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