Cuerpos celestes: Laura Huertas Millán on Patricio Guzmán

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 by the window. The north of Chile, 2001. Judge Guzmán is searching for the bodies of those whom Pinochet disappeared. In the landscape’s background, three volcanoes. The film begins with a trip to a quarry that could be an archaeological site. But it isn’t any ancestors’ remains they’re looking for in this part of the desert. The judge pronounces this investigation is one step closer to social peace. Isabel Reveco, a forensic anthropologist, calls up the image of two bodies found right there, stripped naked, in 1974, with their heads turned toward the volcanoes. Two small, delicate pieces of human bone are seen in her hands. It gives me some peace of mind, says a woman seated near an excavation site. I feel their presence, I feel all this rage, I feel all this sadness. This was my son when I saw him for the last time and now I’ve seen… I’ve seen nothing. In my mind I’ve seen nothing. I’m only going to be left with the memory that I came and that maybe my son ended up here. She hides her gaze behind thick sunglasses. Filmed in close-up, on the 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 burn themselves onto the retina and lodge firmly in the ear: the open settings, the faces, words, the journey, investigations and pain, this last 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 get him started on 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 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 that was, in a sense, though in truth it wasn’t. (…) All of Latin America is sown with the bones of these forgotten youths.” Both Bolaño and Chris Marker (above all 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 for looking into the beyond, through the transparency of the Atacama desert sky. It is a place so dry 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, in search of 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 space-travel 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 as if 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.

In Nostalgia for the Light, the figure of Valentina Rodríguez states astronomy has helped me lend a different dimension to the idea of pain, absence, loss. The daughter of disappeared political prisoners, she was raised by her grandparents. When pain gets really oppressive (…) To think that everything began with a cycle and that it neither began nor will it end with me, nor with my parents, nor my children; that we’re all part of a current, an energy, of matter that recycles, like stars that have to die so that other stars, other planets, can emerge; so that life can emerge… In light of that, I believe what happened to them, their absence, takes on another meaning… Valentina is far removed from any practice of romantic trope. This is not about contemplating the stars to project one’s own pain; on the contrary, it’s about understanding a sovereign otherness that includes but does not depend on us. Being able to accept a position in a world in which we are not central; or to begin to see our participation in and communication with a movement that goes beyond us. Later, the film reveals that the matter that makes up the stars is none other than calcium, just like in human bones. In a literal sense, the cosmic is the human, and vice-versa. A possible resilience appears to be rooted in the inclusion of one space within another, or in their interference.


Territory and nation have always been centers of gravity in Patricio Guzmán’s films. Yet in Nostalgia for the Light one intuits a rootedness that goes beyond any nation’s borders: in the observatories of the Atacama Desert, the human species’s entire existence and fragility are contemplated. Now we consider an event from 1968, a notorious year for having represented the high-point of various political and aesthetic generational movements that demanded freedom, including, among others, the so-called “cine-tracts”(1) that exerted such an influence on documentary filmmaking. This additional event that concerns us here is not related to peaceful revolutions and/or those that dominant powers attack, yet their strange synchrony with dominant powers gives rise to reflection. The first publication of photographs portraying Earth from space, taken as part of the Apollo 8 mission, were in effect in 1968. The image did not portray deep divisions between nations nor between nations and natural elements. Everything was involved in a singular circular movement, a blue, united globe. It was the first time the planet had been portrayed from its exterior and it seemed small, just one other element forming part of the infinite cosmic night. Humanity could now be seen from the outside. Exterior became interior and vice-versa.

In The Pearl Button, from 2015, this circularity between natural elements and the human, between the interior and the exterior, returns. The film’s starting point is water, the element that makes up more than half the matter in our bodies. Looking at the stars, I was drawn to the importance of water. Apparently water came from outer space and life reached us on comets that later formed the oceans, the filmmaker tells us in voice-over, at the same time he shows us a piece of quartz where a drop of water more than three thousand years old has been encapsulated. This new cinematic journey takes us to the Pacific coast of Chile’s southern point, a vast archipelago with a 74,000-kilometer coastline, where a number of indigenous ethnicities live, and lived, including the Selk’nam, the Yamana and the Kawésqar. Murdered, kidnapped and reduced to slavery, these native people were the first victims of genocide and segregation in Chile. Guzmán traces out the inexorable timeline to extinction for a multi-ethnic nation that lived in constant contact with water —maritime and fishing peoples who worshipped both the sea and the stars. Photographs by Martín Gusinde, an Austrian ethnographer and priest who visited Patagonia at the beginning of the twentieth century, portray the Selk’nam in their sacred rituals, painted from head to foot with designs Guzmán compares to constellations. More than half a century later, Paz Errázuriz, a Chilean photographer, returns to Tierra Del Fuego to portray these ethnicities’ surviving individuals. No longer do we see rituals of communion with the forces of nature, but rather the pain of acculturation in faces incisively marked by time and the memory of colonialist violence.


The title The Pearl Button hearkens to Jemmy Button, a fourteen-year-old Native American the English took prisoner in the nineteenth century. The colonizers who carried him off named him like this because they could not pronounce his real name and because allegedly the price they’d paid for him had been a pearl button. Jemmy learned English and that nation’s customs, living in Europe for several years. When as an adult he returned to his native land, he could never acclimate himself to a world that had become foreign to him. It’s hard not to draw a parallel between his exile and Guzmán’s, for whom making a film in his own country means returning to a native land where he no longer lives and whose chronology carried on without him. Patricio Guzmán links Jemmy’s nickname to another small button found on a rail fished from the ocean, kept for years in a display case at Villa Grimaldi (the Chilean dictatorship’s erstwhile detention center). It was a button that allowed one of the disappeared to be identified, an outcome of the fact some 1400 political detainees’ bodies had been bound to heavy-duty rails and thrown into the ocean. What happened to those bodies? Who has taken responsibility for these deaths? The Pearl Button once again stirs up the pain of those questions, breathing new life into a story that hasn’t been taken up in fair social and political terms. Here the sea echoes the desert of the filmmaker’s previous works. Both environments are colossal graveyards. Disquieted, the filmmaker wonders how Chile, a nation that in geographic terms is literally side by side with the ocean, has managed to develop its culture, economy and above all historical memory without looking to the water.

Patricio Guzmán’s films are eminently political and this evidence cannot be denied. But with political we must not necessarily understand partisan, much less allied with any political party. His films return to the roots of the term political, (in ancient Greek, the polis was the city) by centering on the problematic surrounding the creation of community and memory in a nation fundamentally divided by violence. The inclusion of voices and natural presences marks an important moment in his films. Like the “Blue Earth” picture, his films become representations in which individual trauma (be it a person’s or a specific nation’s) should be heard by all humanity, and beyond. These are events geologically inscribed on the face of the earth. The great power of his films lies therein —including the Chilean problem in the history of humankind and nature— and in his films both elements touch and are ultimately the same thing. The two films echo current ways of thinking we consider urgent, where the distinction between the “natural” and the “cultural” is placed into crisis. While we would not go so far to say Guzmán’s films are “mutinaturalist”(2) nor that this is an artistic practice inscribed in this (these) “de-colonialist” line(s) of thought, a new poetic that skews to as much does break out in two recent artworks. Its vertigo may be even more political.



(1) Militant short-subjects, in 8mm and with exceedingly short running times, realized by filmmakers such as Godard, Resnais,… completed in May and June 1968 as an outcome of leftist political dissent. Chris Marker was behind the original idea.

(2) “(…) this new condition in conceptual maps led us to suggest the term “multinaturalism” to designate one of Amerindian thinking’s signature lines of thought as it relates to modern “multi-cultural” cosmologies: while these are based on a mutual implication between nature’s unity and a multiplicity of cultures (…), the Amerindian conception on the contrary would suppose a unity of the spirit and a diversity of bodies.” Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Metafísicas caníbales, p. 20, PUF, Paris, 2009.

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