Due to its exceptionally clear skies, the Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the best places in the world from which to observe the stars. Several giant telescopes are placed there, through which astronomers watch the birth and death of solar systems millions of light-years away — and therefore, due to the time that the light takes to travel the intervening distance, millions of years ago.
In other ways, the desert’s dry air and desolate landscape has become a direct conduit to the past. The rock carvings of pre-colonial shepherds are preserved as if in stasis.
But it’s the more recent past that preoccupies Patricio Guzman in this mesmerizing, very personal 2010 documentary: the 1973 coup that deposed the socialist government of Salvador Allende, and the military dictatorship that followed.
Allende’s government was seen by many as akin to a revolution, the product of a vast social movement, rather more than an election.
“This time of hope,” says Guzman, “is forever engraved in my soul.”
Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship set about ruthlessly crushing the opposition. About 30,000 were tortured; more than 2,200 who “disappeared” were killed. Of those, many were buried in the Atacama.
Nearly 40 years later, relatives of the missing still wander through the desert, trowel in hand, searching for remains, trying to make peace with the past in a society that would rather forget.
By the end of the film, this search, and the astronomers’ search for the workings of the universe, don’t seem that disconnected, after all.