Nostalgia For the Light director and formidable documentarian Patricio Guzmán explains why he'll never allow one of his films to be shown on the National Geographic channel.
Born in Chile though based in Paris, director Patricio Guzmán is best known for his jaw-dropping, three-part verité masterpiece, The Battle of Chile (produced between 1975 and 1979), in which he and his crew bravely pointed their cameras into the widening political abyss that was forming at the centre of Chilean society during the 1970s.
As socialist leader Salvador Allende is brutally overthrown by Augusto Pinochet's far right junta, Guzmán captures the horrific minutiae of a country falling to its knees in front of a violent, pan-global anti-communist conspiracy. The resultant, highly controversial film – which was out of official syndication for many years in Chile – now stands as one of the greatest documentaries ever made.
His brilliant new work, Nostalgia for the Light, ponders similar concerns albeit with a more poetic bent, joining the dots between a group of women searching the Atacama desert for the corpses of relatives murdered during the Pinochet era and astronomers attempting to unlock the secrets of the universe. The BFI Southbank are hosting a full retrospective of Guzmán's work and are giving Nostalgia for the Light an extended run.
LWLies: How did you come up with the title of the film?
Guzmán: It's not mine. There's a book by a French astronomer named Michel Cassé called 'Nostalgia for the Light: Mountains and Marvels of Astrophysics' which he wrote in the 1980s. It's a technical book, a very good one. When I saw that title, I loved it immediately. I went to meet him and I explained to him what I wanted to make with my film, so we went to his observatory and I asked him if I could use the name. He said, 'It's a gift'. Which was nice.
Was Nostalgia for the Light funded by French money?
We had a lot of difficulty raising the funds. For four years the project was rejected by everybody. All the French TV channels. Four Dutch channels. Two Finnish channels. And even one of the North American channels. In total, 16 channels said, 'no'. Finally, we got a pre-buy from a Spanish public TV channel. No-one got a salary for it.
Did the TV channels that rejected the film give you a reason why?
The main reason was that they couldn't see what I was trying to do. They couldn't understand.
How did you sell the film to them?
This may sound odd, but I like to write a script. I never work without a script. I then leave it in the hotel when I'm filming and I go off on my own. But I always have a script because I like to clarify my own ideas. I wrote 23 drafts, so I know it was a good script. It was entertaining and well written. But they just could not understand.
Did that script change during the filming?
A bit. But not as much as you would imagine. I write imaginary sequences with invented dialogue. Then I repeat it, but they're never the same. There's one thing that's important: I never tell anyone what I want them to say.
Do people always say what you want them to say?
I know when I've found the right person. If they go off on another path, I often don't use them. I used one astronomer in the film from the six I interviewed. He understood the concept that his work was not so different from what the women were doing, and therefore I was interested in him. He was totally spontaneous when he said that their work was like me looking for my parents in Andromeda or Jupiter or Mars. He grasped that comparison.
Are you ever inspired enough by the ideas of your interviewees to change the direction of a movie?
Yes. You've got to be open all the time. In this case, as there were other character that interested me, I did five shorts for each one. Now, on the DVD, there's a bonus with this five extra films. They didn't fit within the narrative of the story.
Can you perhaps discuss the exact moment when you made the link between the women in the desert and the astronomers?
Yes. When you work at home with books and papers, you deduce what you think will happen in the desert. But when you go to the desert and you find someone and that person begins to talk to you about what you have already been thinking, it's extraordinary. It's a verification and a corroboration that your intuitions were on the right track. For instance, the archeologist in the film, he was a bit ironic, but he looked and me and he said, 'Okay, how is it possible that the astronomers are looking 10 million years behind us, we, the archeologists, are looking back 10,000 years, and yet we don't remember a thing about the coup d'état from 1973?' This was in his head. He also said, 'Not only have we forgotten about the coup d'état, we've forgotten all the history about how we massacred the Indians here for 100 years.' And that was an amazing thing for him to say as he opened that door even wider than I originally had. So the people you meet are always better than your initial idea. Always.
Has the idea for this film been with you for a long time?
Five years. The important thing is to transform the concepts into a narrative. For a long time I was studying the desert, the work of the women, what the observatories were doing, but I couldn't find the story. It began to emerge when I mixed these worlds together.
You've been 'exiled' in Paris since you made The Battle of Chile. What was it like returning to Chile to make this film?
I go back a lot now. I started a small documentary film festival and I return for about three weeks a year. I also teach documentary-making. I live in Paris, but am in constant communication with Chile. It's interesting, as this idea links to something that came up in the film, which is the concept of distance. As I live outside of Chile, but I feel better prepared to talk about Chile. It's one of the positive aspects of exile. You can see things more clearly in your own country. It's a contradiction, but an interesting one.
How have Chilean audiences responded to the film?
Documentary cinema is not very well distributed in Chile. TV rarely screens documentaries that aren't about animals or nature, the kind of thing that comes up on the National Geographic.
Do you think there are elements of this film which would interest the audience of National Geographic?
Only small fragments of the film.
Would you be okay to screen the film in that context?
No, I would reject it. I'm not in the least bit interested in that milieu. I'd rather be out of work. I have a road I'm taking and I'm not getting off that road. It's nothing to do with flexibility, it's that I detest that kind of TV. To continue what I was saying before, the film got 6,000 spectators from eight screens. However, in France it got 70,000, and it's been on at the cinema for nearly 16 months non-stop. It's still being seen all over the world. The big problem is Latin America. There are no distributors. Not just of documentaries, but fiction films also. The cinemas get everything from North America. If they get a film from Iran, they just don't know what to do with it. Same goes for a documentary. Especially one that's about dead people and telescopes.
Could I infer that the independent cinema scene is not particularly rich in Latin America?
There are very few. Of the 100 cinemas in Chile, maybe eight are independent.
Are you OK with people watching your film on DVD or the internet?
If you can see it on a plasma TV, that would be nice. The DVD is doing well, though. It's selling.
You famously had problems with the authorities during the making and release of The Battle of Chile. How has this film gone down with those who lived through the coup?
We have to make clarifications here: I filmed The Battle of Chile during the Allende regime, therefore I had no problem. If anything, it was sympathetically received and I had sympathy for the government. I had problems with the extreme right. There were moments of real danger, but we expected that to happen. It was a very polarised country at that moment. We managed to get some films in during the Pinochet era, but they were all seen secretly. VHS versions of the film were copied and passed around. I have no idea who saw it. The democracy that followed Pinochet was made up of socialists and christian democrats, and the latter were part of the revolution, so the film still did not get an official release. Basically, every involved in the coup has to die in order for the film to be seen properly. It's… complicated.
It's still controversial then?
Very much so. There's a DVD and VHS version in Chile, but the run for each was only about a thousand.
Are they censored?
It's a kind of auto censorship in that no director of a TV channel would dare to put The Battle of Chile on the screen in a prime viewing slot. He would be inundated with complaints. Pinochet still has a following in Chile – not least the army, who were the primary culprits of the coup. Nostalgia for the Light is the first film of mine which has been shown on TV. A crack is finally opening.
Is this a small sign of a country finally coming to terms with its own past?
No. This film is metaphorical and poetic. That's why people can accept it.