Chilean Film Nostalgia for the Light Haunts, Educates

Nancy Roane, Staff Writer

History professor Steve Volk hosted a screening of the Chilean documentary Nostalgia for the Light last week to commemorate the 38th anniversary of the 1973 coup in Chile. The film, directed by Patricio Guzmán, a well-known Chilean filmmaker and documentarian, addresses the coup and the complexities of memory through the lens of astronomy, archaeology and the search for bodies of the victims of Augusto Pinochet, the dictator who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990. During Pinochet’s regime, some 3,000 Chileans were killed and approximately 40,000 were tortured.

In Nostalgia for the Light, Guzmán plays with memory and the fragility of the present by exploring the Atacama Desert in northern Chile — a vast expanse of rocky dirt, and the driest place on earth. The Atacama is known for its clear skies that allow for star observation and its zero percent humidity, which makes the ground perfect for preserving many generations of bones and other artifacts. More chillingly, the desert is known as the dumping ground for hundreds of Pinochet’s victims, often referred to as los desaparecidos, or “the disappeared.”

On September 11, 1973, army leaders attacked the Presidential Palace in Santiago, resulting in the death of Chile’s first democratically elected Socialist president, Salvador Allende. Professor Volk lived in Santiago at the time of the coup and witnessed the bombing of the Presidential Palace. He was in Chile working on his dissertation while also building a library of literature on U.S. involvement in Latin America at the University of Chile. His library opened on September 10, 1973, but immediately after had to be dismantled due to the coup.

“I spent many weeks going into the University with a briefcase and taking books out one briefcase at a time,” said Volk. He spent the eight weeks following the coup in Santiago working with a group of North Americans to publish articles about the U.S. involvement in Chile and to help Chileans get into exile. Two members of his group were killed after the coup.

College senior Hannah Joseph recently studied abroad in Chile and attended the film screening. Joseph felt that screening the film in Oberlin was important to fostering awareness.

“The film promoted the frank discussion of the humanitarian effects of the Pinochet dictatorship that I was unable to freely have in Chile outside of conversation with ex-political prisoners themselves,” said Joseph.

Though the film is both directed by a Chilean and focused on Chile, its subject matter actually remains a taboo subject in Guzmán’s native land. Double degree fifth-year Hannah Selin drew a parallel between the lack of education in Chile regarding the coup, and possibilities of similar occurrences in the U.S.

“It made me wonder where the gaps have been and currently lie in my own education in the U.S.,” said Selin.

Guzmán has worked on several other films having to do with memory and the political history in Chile. Past works include Salvador Allende (2004), a film that recollects the deceased president through a few of his personal items: an ID card, wallet and watch. In the film Obstinate Memory (1997), Guzmán explores the memory of his cinematographer, Jorge Müller, who was murdered in relation to the coup.