Outer Space is Another Kind of Desert

Nostalgia for the Light’s Meditation on Bones and Stars

Icarus Films

The galaxy can exude a comforting neutrality. An unfathomable system, a blank, a boundless abyss, the cosmos has served as a rich backdrop for cinematic adventures and epics. Culturally, it often operates as a place to escape to—to project onto—when life on Earth is lacking. As counterprogramming to this type of “space movie,” Patricio Guzmán’s forceful documentary Nostalgia for the Light (2010) takes the movement of a “voyage into space” and inverts it. 

Nostalgia for the Light is slippery to watch and slippery to describe. An elegiac poem to the Atacama Desert and its many layers of meaning, the film uses bone fragments, stars, dust, and ash to craft a tender visual collage that proposes an alternate shape for history and human life. In a braided film essay format, Guzmán uses voice-over to guide us through two parallel, intersecting stories about the Chilean desert. First, its status in the world of astronomy—due to its extreme dryness, it’s one of the best places on earth to observe the galaxy. Second, the site’s history of human suffering—it served as a giant burial ground for “disappeared” bodies during the Pinochet regime and housed large-scale concentration camps for political prisoners. 

Instead of escaping the problems of Earth to understand the mysteries of the galaxy, Guzmán presents our images and fantasies about space alongside the tortured memories of the Chilean people. Through its visual metaphors, Nostalgia for the Light seeks to capture not just our tangible experiences with space, but also our relationship to it, to think of outer space in human terms. 

Patricio Guzmán is a filmmaker best known for his political documentary, The Battle of Chile: The Struggle of an Unarmed People (1975-1979). In the three-part series, Guzmán chronicles in painstaking detail the various forces that contributed to the right-wing coup d’état that brought down the democratic government of Salvador Allende and put Augusto Pinochet in power. During the Pinochet years, a practice of identifying and then “disappearing” political dissidents contributed to the presumed deaths of over 2,000 civilians and the torture of nearly 30,000. Since the release of The Battle of Chile, Guzmán’s work has revisited the events of those brutal, traumatizing years in the form of their impact on the present. In the documentary Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997), Guzmán screens The Battle of Chile for Chilean youths who had been kept from full knowledge about the politics of their own country. Nostalgia for the Light, which premiered at Cannes nearly 40 years after the events of the dictatorship, also takes on the ambitious project of dealing with the scars and trauma of this period in Chilean history, using the Atacama Desert as a nexus for the past and future.

We are often prompted to think about history as a linear narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, or worse, as a progression of ascent towards a utopian future. Nostalgia for the Light challenges us instead to think of the history of the earth as a jagged, disorganized collage, a network of contradictions, images, memories, and facts. In his essay “Of Other Spaces,” Michel Foucault writes: “The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed…our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.” Nostalgia for the Light exemplifies this thinking, deftly applying it to the filmmaker’s own life, the recent Chilean past, and, in an elegant echo, to the vastest network of all—the cosmos. 

The film begins at an astronomical observatory, moves to the surface of the moon, fades into a recreation of Guzmán’s childhood home and then lingers on a meditative shot of dust swirling in a beam of light—a small-scale version of the proliferation of stars in the galaxy. It’s the first visual metaphor of the film, and an apt one. Adopting a childlike perspective, Guzmán’s camera moves from the scientific, to the personal, to the abstract, changing perspectives and altering the scale of the conversation with an ease and poetry that immediately draws us in. He creates a new cinematic language of space, connected to both the mundanities of life on earth and the imaginative power of memory. 

Guzmán links his interest in space to its earthly cinematic counterpart, the Atacama Desert. Over an image of the Earth, Guzmán narrates, “Our humid planet has only one small brown patch that has absolutely no humidity. The vast Atacama Desert.” On the surface of the planet, we can indeed only make out one small area of brown coloring, like a stain. From that aerial image, Guzmán cuts to a POV shot of the camera pointed downwards at feet stepping on the dry, dusty surface of the Atacama desert. Guzmán urges us to unbalance the notion that we exist on familiar ground: “I imagine that man will soon walk on Mars. This ground beneath my feet bears the strongest resemblance to that faraway world.” 

Guzmán points his camera deeper underground, to the archeological digs happening in the desert and to the bodies deposited in its sand—–those of indigenous peoples, early man, and the disappeared from the Pinochet regime. In doing so, he creates parallels between the connected unknowabilities of outer space, the ground beneath our feet, and our complex and traumatic political histories. He refers to the Atacama as “a condemned land, permeated with salt, where human remains are mummified and objects are frozen in time. The air, transparent, thin, allows us to read this vast open book of memory page after page.”. 

Deepening his focus on the relationship between land and history, Guzmán moves his camera to the remains of a concentration camp,  drawing further connections between the political history housed in the land and the space on which it looks. Here, at a site that contains so much resonance for Chile’s history of political trauma, Guzmán makes the case that the desert’s proximity and access to space had real ramifications on the lives of the prisoners. “The military banned the astronomy lessons,” he explains, “they were convinced that the prisoners could escape guided by the constellations.”. 

Guzmán consistently makes such connections between outer space and our earthly reality. An astronomer interviewed for the film wonders out loud why his work, which involves patiently sifting through dark matter and data, is more well-respected than the work of the widows and survivors sifting through the desert, trying to find the remains of their loved ones. Guzmán’s camera lingers over the bones of ancient people in a museum, as well as the unidentified bones of bodies of the “disappeared.” Astronomers and astrologers both sift through endless data to discover the truths of who we are. The documentary spends some time on the fact that stars and bones are both made of calcium. A graph pulled up on a computer compares the two and demonstrates the near-identical make-up. ‘What are we to make of this?’ Guzmán seems to be asking.

Nostalgia for the Light ends with the widows seen earlier in the film, still searching for the remains of their loved ones in the desert. An astronomer guides them as they look into a telescope. The women smile and point upwards, and a shimmering dust effect is overlaid on their faces and bodies. “Compared to the immensity of the cosmos, Guzmán says, “the problems of the Chilean people might seem insignificant. But if we laid them out on a table, they would be as vast as a galaxy.” Subverting the idea of outer space as a kind of land with no flag, Guzmán insists on imprinting his country’s legacy onto his experience of the galaxy. 

The final shot, with Santiago’s lights twinkling like stars, poetically encapsulates the film’s themes, reminding us of the enduring impact of both the cosmos and human history: “Each night, slowly, impassively, the center of the galaxy passes over Santiago.” 

After watching the film and experiencing its disorienting expansion and contraction, one might wonder about the title: Nostalgia for the Light. To me, it challenges the viewer to embrace emotional logic—to put science and analytics aside in favor of poetry. “Nostalgia for the light” captures a primal yearning. As the documentary reminds us near its midpoint, light from the sun and stars travels several minutes before arriving on Earth. Sometimes a star no longer exists by the time its ray arrives. We look up at the sky and experience a paradox, a disorienting juxtaposition of life and death.