In this quiet, reflective documentary by Patricio Guzmán, a clear parallel is drawn between an observatory hosting a number of powerful telescopes that look out to the stars from Chile’s barren, otherworldly Atacama Desert, and those who look into the desert ground to find clues, and more, about the country’s distant and recent past.
The Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on Earth, which improves clarity for astronomers staring out into the night sky. In the late 1970s a huge new observatory was built, intended for international use. However this was the period of General Pinochet’s Chilean dictatorship, following a military coup in 1973, and the desert was also home to the notorious Chacabuco Mines. These were abandoned, disused salt peter mines that were adapted for use as concentration camps by Pinochet, who imprisoned and killed his political opponents. The Pinochet regime also used the desert to hide a number of mass graves.
Today, scientists from around the world do make excellent use of the observatory, and the mechanics of the giant telescopes and their houses are covered in glorious, loving detail in this film. In the opening couple of minutes Guzmán shows the cogs slowly whirring round as the telescope almost comes to life before our eyes, and it’s fascinating footage. He interviews an astronomer who explains that everything we look at is in the past (due to the speed of light, we’re talking millionths of a second here), and that his job is to look into the past in space for answers to questions about our own existence. And those answers, apparently, create even more questions.
Guzmán interviews an archaeologist, who uses the desert to look at the past, though in this case it’s easier to understand the more conventional concept: across the Atacama rocks have been painted by pre-Colombian shepherds and due to the humidity fossils and bodies found in the desert are often well-preserved. While these learned individuals are certainly helping to uncover the secrets of history, there is an implication in the film’s narrative that Chile, as a nation, struggles to adequately address its own past. As Guzmán points out, there are huge gaps in information concerning events that happened as recently as the 19th Century.
Information is sadly lacking about much of Pinochet’s brutal rule in the 1970s, too. Near the observatory, Chilean women walk across the scorched earth looking for the remains of their loved ones who went missing nearly 40 years ago. Many of these ladies are now old, shown stooping down occasionally to pick up a small fragment of bone or a scrap of clothing, desperately seeking answers to their own searching questions. It is heartbreakingly unjust that they are forced to do this themselves and seen by the authorities as a nuisance at the same time. All are motivated by their own hope and desire to eventually find some peace of mind and for the events of the 1970s to be properly addressed.
Guzmán links these threads extremely well, and thoughtfully. We see pieces of bones picked up and hear that teeth, parts of skulls and more are regularly found. At one point a lady named Violeta Barrios forlornly explains that she wishes the telescopes could point towards the ground, instead of away from it. It is an extremely moving interview, and poignantly the filmmaker includes footage immediately afterwards of astronomers fascinated by calcium readings of stars that are light years away.
While it is a righteous, heartfelt documentary, it is also a calm and reflective one. Those affected by the disappearances of family members will never be at peace, and they are understandably weary. Their weariness is not simply down to advancing years, though, although wandering the unforgiving Atacama landscape must be tough on all ages. An astronomer in her late 30s, who lost both parents in the mid-1970s, is also interviewed. Interestingly, she has been able to find some semblance of peace through astronomy, a hobby her grandfather introduced to her after her parents were taken by Pinochet’s junta.
The telescopes, pointing up towards the cosmos, serve as a constant reminder throughout that Chile is essentially looking away from its own ground, its own self. There is a tendency for us as a race to look up to the sky and consider ourselves insignificant in the face of all those bright little dots, but Guzmán rejects that notion, suggesting the significance of Chile’s recent history should not be downplayed.
This desert, beautifully photographed and – essentially – the nearest thing we have on Earth to Mars, holds the key to many, many stories. The older ones are buried deep, deep down, in rock that is millions of years old. The newer ones are very close to the surface, and this excellent documentary is a reminder that we should not allow certain stories to be covered up and forgotten about.
Directed by: Patricio Guzmán
Written by: Patricio Guzmán
Starring: Gaspar Galaz, Lautaro Núñez, Luís Henríquez, Violeta Berrios
Running Time: 90 Minutes