Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Nostalgia for the Atacama

Nearly 30 years ago, I spent almost a year in northernmost Chile, where the Atacama Desert is the world’s driest. It’s not quite true that it never rains in the Atacama, as director Patricio Guzmán states in his new documentary Nostalgia for the Light, but that’s not quite true - I’ve experienced light rain in Antofagasta and snow in San Pedro de Atacama, and precipitation increases with altitude and from west to east.

In fact, when I lived in the Aymara Indian village of Parinacota (pictured above), 4,392 meters (14,409 feet) above sea level, on the Bolivian border east of the coastal city of Arica, we had frequent thunderstorms and occasional whiteout snowstorms - in summer. Summer is the rainy season there and, though Arica itself almost never gets rain, precipitation from the Andes can rush through the deep canyons and cause flash floods on the coast.

That said, I’ll grant Guzmán artistic license for his hyperbole in a skillfully crafted cinematic essay that ties together the themes of astronomy, archaeology and the yearning for transparency and closure in the aftermath of General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship - many of whose victims disappeared into the vast Atacama. It’s a credit to Guzmán, who also documented Pinochet’s 1973 coup against the government of the late President Salvador Allende in The Battle of Chile, accomplishes this without indulging in polemics. The photography and cinematography, of course, are magnificent.

I can’t possibly summarize Nostalgia for the Light with Guzmán’s eloquence, but its theme is the will to interpret and even confront the past. Astronomers do so by gazing through telescopes - the Atacama is home to several major international observatories such as the European Southern Observatory's Cerro Paranal (pictured above). Archaeologists do so by excavating ruins and analyzing artifacts and even human remains found on or beneath the desert surface, in a climate whose nearly absolute aridity preserves them perfectly. In fact, archaeologists and physical anthropologists have involved themselves in identifying remains from mass graves such as the one at the isolated coastal village of Pisagua (pictured below), which also served as an inescapable prison camp.

Still, it’s the families of the disappeared, in search of their loved ones, who have been the force behind the search - sometimes testing the barren desert surfaces with trowels and shovels - and Guzmán makes them central figures in the film. Chilean astronomer Gaspar Calas, meanwhile, points out that we are always looking at the past - even a conversation at the dinner table involves delays, despite the speed of light and sound.

If there’s one criticism I could make, it’s that Guzmán (born 1941) romanticizes the Chile of his youth as almost a carefree, conflict-free country. While he points out the often-poor working conditions and injustices of nitrate mines such as Oficina Chacabuco (which were really company towns with an authoritarian organization), he seems to suggest that Chile had overcome such problems when he was a kid. Certainly Chile was stable by Latin American standards, but problems such as inequitable land tenure in the heartland intensified class tensions and encouraged the rise of Allende and others far who were far more extreme.

Still, I strongly recommend Nostalgia for the Light and, if you go to Chile, visiting several of the locations Guzmán used. Among them is Oficina Chacabuco (pictured above), which the dictatorship used as a prison camp; Guzmán interviews several former prisoners, one of whom was an amateur astronomer who taught his fellow prisoners about the night sky to help create a feeling of solidarity among them.

And of course there are the observatories, most notably Cerro Paranal, about which I have written in another post, and Las Campanas. At the end of the day, though, the most affecting single sight is a stark cross-studded amphitheater that stands in the desert east of Calama, on the road to San Pedro de Atacama. Each of its columns represents a prisoner executed here during General Sergio Arellano Stark’s so-called Caravana de la Muerte (Caravan of Death). Sadly, this Parque para la Preservación de la Memoria Histórica (Park for the Preservation of Historical Memory) does not merit a mention, nor even appear on the maps, in the widely sold Chiletur Copec series of guides and road atlases. It does appear, however, on the Chilean government's list of human rights memorials.

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gbb said...

Since I happened to read this post from Cerro Paranal about 30 feet from where the above photo was taken, I must point out that ESO stands for the "European Southern Observatory".

Wayne Bernhardson said...

Thank you for pointing out the error, which I have corrected. One of the shortcomings of blogs, of course, is self-editing.

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