Chile’s Past and Future: Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light

THERE ACTUALLY IS NO PRESENT MOMENT, explains an astronomer in Patricio Guzmán’s latest film, Nostalgia for the Light. The Chilean director (The Battle of Chile, The Pinochet Case) once again grapples with time, and how memory affects the present and past. With this film, however, he’s crafted a magnificent meditation on memory by finding the link between two separate and seemingly different subjects: astronomy and human rights.

Nostalgia is set entirely in “the driest place on earth,” Chile’s Atacama Desert, home to some of the world’s most powerful celestial observatories. The Atacama is also where, after Pinochet’s military coup of September 1973, political prisoners were detained in concentration camps and bodies of murdered dissidents dumped and hidden in mass graves.

The dry, translucent air allows astronomers to discover the origins of the universe. It also preserves human remains, including those of Pre-Columbian mummies and 19th century miners.

Guzmán, who narrates his film, begins by exploring his love for astronomy and the wonders to be found in the sky. Guzmán lovingly films the workings of the telescope and interviews the stellar cartographers who map the cosmos.

The astronomers spend their lives looking up and looking back: everything they see is in the past. And they are looking far, far back in time.

This is not the case for the families of the disappeared. In this way Guzmán slowly reveals the driving force behind his film, and the connection to Chile’s recent past. The astronomers are not the only searchers in the Atacama desert.

There are also the women of Calama, an ever-dwindling group who comb the dry desert floor for bone fragments and remains, hoping to find evidence of their lost loved ones.

The astronomers look up, the women of Calama look down, and both groups look back, but with wholly different motivations.

Like an investigative journalist picking away at a story, Guzmán discovers all the people, alongside the astronomers, whose lives are tied to the Atacama: the archeologist who chronicles the pre-Colombian carvings on the rocky plains; and the architect and former dissident who used his drawing skills to memorize exactly, down to the square meter, the dimensions of the compound where prisoners were kept.

There is the young man, also an astronomer, whose mother is a torture survivor and today acts as a counselor to others like her; and the camp survivor who revisits the abandoned 19th century miners’ barracks that was converted to a detention camp. He demonstrates how a group of detainees, guided by a fellow prisoner, educated themselves in the constellations.

They even constructed a crude telescope out of wood to look at the stars. The astronomy “classes” did not last however, and they were ordered to stop, because their torturers believed they could use the constellations to plot their escape.

It all comes back to the stars. As a coda, there is the work one of the visiting scientists whose studies the stuff of star matter and the calcium in our bones. It’s all the same, he says. We are stardust. Is it so very ironic to discover this fact, and in this place, where individuals search for bones and stars and yet are looking for the same thing?

Two final scenes are poignant and pointed: two of the women of Calama are given an opportunity to look through one of the telescopes. Guzmán superimposes stardust floating around them.

The film ends with the twinkling lights of Chile’s modern capital, Santiago. It almost looks like one of the nebulae or galaxies we’ve been gazing at. Every night the center of the universe passes over Santiago, Guzmán narrates, but no one cares to notice. Chile denies its past, unwilling to face recent events and their consequences. It cannot exist, Guzmán says, or move forward, until it does.

Read more about the film and Patricio Guzman at the official site of Icarus Films.

“Post Mortem”: Chile, a cabaret dancer, and the Coup


A scene from Pedro Larraín's Post Mortem

THE PEOPLE IN DIRECTOR PABLO LARRAÍN’S FILMS are cold, hard characters caught up in their country’s history. As in Larraín’s last film, Tony Manero, about a man literally trying to become John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, life under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1970s Chile is the backdrop for obsession and emotional violence. But the real story is how people completely fail to make a true connection, with terrible consequences for society.

Post Mortem is the story of Mario (Alfredo Castro), a quiet, unassuming type who works as an autopsy recorder in the state’s mortuary. He fancies his neighbor Nancy (Antonia Zegers), a cabaret dancer with family ties to politically active socialists. It just happens that it’s September 1973, the days of the coup against Salvador Allende.

Before we get to Larraín’s political statement, and indeed his condemnation of certain aspects of Chilean civil society, Larraín carefully plots the development of Mario’s and Nancy’s “courtship.” She scarcely knows of his existence, were it not for Mario showing up at the exact moment she’s been fired from her job. He buys her a drink, drives her home, and it looks like things might go his way were it not for the couple driving straight into a demonstration by the community youth society. Nancy is literally whisked out of the car and seemingly out of Mario’s life.

A study of streetwise-yet-needy girl and prudish civil servant is the stuff of an indie film; Larraín however, has other tricks up his camera. He’s not interested in a love story, because in the Chile he imagines (Larraín was born in 1976) there’s certainly no room for sentimentality.

The story begins to move with purpose once we get out of Mario’s domestic circumstances and move into his professional setting, the mortuary where he transcribes autopsies. The doctor in charge is an intellectual who discusses political philosophy over staff lunches. Meanwhile, the doctor’s assistant, Sandra, makes a pass at Mario, which he rejects.

This will be an important character moment once the coup happens and everything changes. But this is no The Battle of Chile: the fighting and bloodshed is all off-screen. And Mario is so far in his own head that he barely realizes there’s been a coup. (Or perhaps he doesn’t care). In fact el golpe does intrude on Mario’s life: he discovers Nancy’s house completely ransacked and torn up.

And when Mario shows up at work like usual, the halls of the morgue are now filled with machine-gun toting soldiers. And the dead bodies start piling up.

Throughout these sequences Larraín shoots with a cool, detached eye, echoing that of his main character. Mario’s voice is never raised, he never panics, he doesn’t show any emotion at all when he’s asked to roll a hand truck overflowing with freshly killed people down a dim hallway. Even when he finds Nancy’s father’s body among the dozens strewn about the morgue, he doesn’t react. He doesn’t tell Nancy he’s found her father either, even though she’s been pleading with him, in her own selfish way, for Mario’s help in finding her family.

It’s in the way Mario interacts with the women in his life that Larraín makes his most pointed statement. During the film’s political high point, the staff is asked to perform the autopsy on Salvador Allende Gossens. Sandra, who is shown to be sympathetic to the socialist movement, can’t bring herself to cut open Allende’s dead body. But when the doctor declares that the fatal wound, a shot to the head at point-blank range, could have been self-inflicted, a tiny but persistent smile breaks on Mario’s face.

Later, when Sandra refuses to tag any more dead bodies and pleads with the doctor to stop what’s happening, Mario looks on impassively. Earlier, Mario rejected his co-worker’s advances because, he told Sandra, he doesn’t go with women who sleep around. The real reason, of course, were her political leanings. Eventually, he will break with Nancy as well. She may once have been the gorgeous object of his fantasies, but in the end she is just another person to be shut away and forgotten.

By choosing to make a character like Mario the center of his film, Larraín is clearly showing how some Chileans welcomed the coup as an opportunity to rid their society of political elements they disliked. Yes, it was a messy process. Yes, many people were disappeared. But Larraín is interested in showing how easy it is to not act, to go along with what’s happening. Performance, playing “roles”—Larraín keeps returning to these themes in his films. While dark humor pervaded his previous effort, this latest story is more stark and serious, but no less thought-provoking.

Post Mortem screens this week as part of the 2010 New York Film Festival.

Chile’s Bicentennial: Mapuche Resistance Amid the Celebrations



AS CHILE CELEBRATED ITS BICENTENNIAL last weekend, more than 30 political prisoners of the indigenous Mapuche entered the 73rd day of a hunger strike. The Mapuche prisoners want to call attention to their struggle for land rights and bring an end to anti-terrorism laws used to criminalize them.

The Chilean government seems to be taking notice: President Sebastián Piñera offered a dialogue and pledged to invest $4 billion in the Araucania region. Meanwhile, four Congressional members of Chile’s opposition parties joined in solidarity with the prisoners.

Piñera is on a media blitz lately, chatting up Chile’s rising currency and plans for recovery after the February earthquake.

You can always count on Chile to project a strong democracy and stable economy, no matter what the circumstances below the surface. This is an opportunity for Piñera’s young administration to right some wrongs of the past. But the biggest story on people’s minds still seems to be the rescue of the trapped miners.

At least one Chilean artist, Guillo, cuts through it all and gets to heart of the matter, with his take on the word “unity” (“Unidad”):



For more response on what citizens and activists are doing to call attention to the Mapuche struggle, see this photo essay about a demonstration in Santiago, Chile, published by user-generated news site Demotix.

Denial of Rights Leads Political Prisoners to Hunger Strike in Chile


Photo: ©Ferran Legaz/Azkintuwe

THIRTY-TWO POLITICAL PRISONERS from the indigenous Mapuche nation in Chile have now been on hunger strike since July 12. They are demanding fair trials and dialogue with authorities who brand the Mapuche as terrorists under a Pinochet-era law.

Argentine sculptor and architect Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for his human rights work in Latin America, alluded to the anti-terrorism law in his letter to Chilean President Sebastián Piñera:

“I am surprised that even today, after a period of democracy in our country, there is still a law applied that came about from the time of the military dictatorship…it condemns our Mapuche brothers as if they were subversives when in reality they are simply defending their rights.”

The story of the Mapuche gets very little attention in international media, and local coverage is even less widespread in Chile. On August 23, Mapuche leaders demonstrated at a radio station to protest media silence about the hunger strike.

Recently groups around the world, including London and Vancouver, expressed global solidarity and support with the Mapuche cause.

As Chile approaches the anniversary of its bicentennial on September 18, the conditions of its indigenous population are getting worse. Chile’s actions show a country that metes out democracy and its privileges only to a select few, as it did when it welcomed recently freed Cuban dissidents. Without human rights for the Mapuche in Chile, its celebration of freedom and democracy on September 18 will be a hollow one.


The blog Chile Indígena has a list of all the Mapuche prisoners currently on hunger strike, and the charges against them.

The Mapuche International Link seeks to promote Mapuche interests and highlight issues facing all American indigenous peoples. The site is available in English, French, and Spanish.

Azkintuwe (published in Spanish), is the leading newspaper for news of the Mapuche nation.

Top Tweets for Activists (Week Ending Aug. 20)

Welcome to Top Tweets for Activists: a selection of the week’s best tweets, blog posts, media, and news stories.

If you’d like to suggest a topic or news story, please leave a link in the Comments.


From June 7 to 9th 2010 young people gathered in Washington D.C. for the Women Deliver Conference. Amnesty International Mexico asked young men and women about their main concerns on Sexual and Reproductive Rights in the framework of the National Network to Stop VIolence Against Women and its Demand Dignity Campaign. From @WomenDeliver:


Indigenous Rights/Borneo: Fight against Kaiduan Dam, Sabah @j_rubis

Indigenous Rights/Rapa Nui/Chile: Indigenous activists occupy govt property in Easter Island @Amnesty


What are the root causes of poverty? @FuturityNews via @PamFR

Why do some people think that poverty is easy to fix? @damselfish

Poverty Group Honest About Its Work; How Rare Is That? @freefromhunger


France Racism and Politics: Immigration & Citizenship @globalvoices

Pakistan If all you know about #Pakistan is what you see in the media, please give this a read @jterziett

Food Insecurity Food supplies most at risk in Afghanistan, Africa @alertnet

Sudan Avoiding the Train Wreck in Sudan: U.S. Leverage for Peace. New @EnoughProject report via @jonhutson

Top Tweets for Activists (Week Ending August 5)

Welcome to Top Tweets for Activists: a selection of tweets, blog posts, media, and news stories.

If you’d like to suggest a topic or news story, please leave a link in the Comments.


This advocacy video by @icsdp makes good use of info graphics + data visualization to tell a story about the “war on drugs”:


The link between human rights and the rule of law. @SusanneUre

Prop 8 Out, Equality In @amnesty

COLOMBIA Former Prisoners Of Conscience Take Protest To Military Base In Colombia @RayBeckerman via @SOAWatch

CHILE Mapuche on Hunger Strike over Chile’s Militancy @RayBeckerman


UN official stresses the importance of human rights in overcoming poverty @jnascim

Heavy rains expected in Pakistan for the rest of week @povertynewsblog


IMMIGRATION The 1868 debate over the 14th Amendment actually DID mention immigrants, thank you very much @MotherJones

FREEDOM OF SPEECH Vietnam: Writers Honored for Commitment to Free Speech: (New York) – Six Vietnamese writers are among a diverse gr… @HRW

CPJ welcomes arrests in Mexican journalists’ abductions @pressfreedom

PEACE Noam Chomsky’s Recorded Address to the United National Peace Conference @commondreams via @MADREspeaks

CONGO/CONFLICT MINERALS Listen to @NPR’s @OnPointRadio interview w/ @LisaJShannon & @EnoughProject on #Congo conflict minerals @jonhutson

KENYA Kenyan constitution: History in the making @pambazuka via @firozem

Chile: A Short Guide to Indigenous Mapuche Poets

The Mapuche nation flag.

THE MAPUCHE INDIGENOUS PEOPLE of southern Chile represent the largest ethnic group in the country. Today, despite the introduction of the Indigenous Law in 1993, <a href="Mapuche lands remain vulnerable to development.

Contemporary poets compose in their native Mapudungun and Spanish. Here is a sample of two of the leading Mapuche poets writing today, Graciela Huinao and Jaime Luis Huenón:

    Graciela Huinao

in the blue nights of the South
the agonizing vegetable song
of the Nawel buta
reaches my door.
I don’t know if it is
when he shakes his branches
in protest
because they have torn out his eyes
or in the moment
in which he bleeds empty the rivers
because of the cutting
of his arms.
My soul breaks
in an anguished song of Pewen (2)
and ancient voices
reach my door
but only I
understand their language
that cold with fear
glides through the jungle
to die in it.
While in my eyes
the last stars

(1) (Big tiger). Mountain chain near Temuco.
(2) The Araucaria tree.

    Jaime Luis Huenón

I got off in the fog of Port Trakl,
searching for the Bar of Good Fortune
to chat about my trip.
But everyone was mesmerized by the polar stars in their drinks,
silent like the sea off a desert island.
I went out to roam the red-lit streets.
Perfumed and bored women, selling their tired bodies.
«In Port Trakl poets come to die», they said,
smiling in all the languages of the world.
I gave them poems I planned to take to my grave
as proof of my time on Earth.

Translation by Daniel Borzutzky

Four Mapuche Poets: An Anthology collects the work of Huinao, Huenón, Elicura Chihuailaf, and Leonel Lienlaf.

Poet of the Week: Carmen Yáñez

image credit:

The poet Carmen Yáñez was born in Santiago de Chile in 1952. In 1975, during Augusto Pinochet’s regime, she was imprisoned and held at Villa Grimaldi, the headquarters of the secret police. After her release, she remained in hiding until 1981, and with the help of the U.N., eventually settled in Sweden. From 1982 until the mid-nineties, Yáñez wrote mostly for Swedish poetry magazines, then began to publish in Chile. In 1997, she moved to Asturías in Spain. Yáñez read at the Hay Festival Cartagena in 2009.

This poem, “Morada,” which means abode or dwelling place, speaks to Yáñez’s exile and desire to regain one’s lost identity:

Se han ido todos;
el bosque con su música de abetos,
los hombres cargando sus sombras
y sus perros.

Y eran de sueño los prismas de colores
que dejaban tras de sí.

Se han ido todos.

Yo me quedo
con un mínimo candil
entre las manos.

De vez en cuando
soy el árbol
que apuesta sus raíces
a la tierra.


They have all gone;
the woods with its music of firs,
men carrying their shadows
and their dogs.

And dreams were colored prisms
they left behind.

They have all gone.

I remain
with a small light
in my hands.

I am the tree
who wagers its roots
to the earth.

How One Film Can Change A Life

Once in a while a film changes you forever.

For me that film is Costa-Gavras’s Missing, released in 1982. The film is based on the true events surrounding the disappearance of journalist Charles Horman during the September 1973 coup in Chile. Although the country is never named, it was nonetheless banned in Chile during Pinochet’s regime.

As far as I knew it was the only American, A-list picture ever released about Chile. My mother was born in Chile, and lived there for most of her adult life until she emigrated to the United States in the early 1960s. I, on the other hand, once visited Chile on holiday when I was eight years old. As a child, I was a flag-waving patriotic kid who’s favorite day of the year was July 4th. In my tender eyes and ears, the United States was the greatest country in the world that could do no wrong. But it my perspective and understanding that was wrong.

A New Perspective

Missing opened my eyes to some hard truths: about the U.S government’s role in Chilean politics, and its willingness to put business “interests” above the safety and lives of its citizens.

“Did all that really happen?” I asked.

My mother is equally patriotic. In fact she’s never become a naturalized citizen of the U.S. But despite her reluctance to discuss politics and history with me, going to see this film together was a way for her to tell me what had happened in her country, less than a decade before. But in an indirect way since she too was away when it happened—maybe she searched for answers, too.

After the film I immediately went to the library to read anything I could find about the coup and the American government’s involvement in Chile’s political history. The deeper I got, the more I learned, and not just about my mother’s country.

Learning to write with passion

Eventually this research into my personal roots led me down many paths of human rights violations, including Argentina’s history of the disappeared. (My father is originally from Argentina). This knowledge affected me greatly; in fact I wrote a novel about a woman who learns she is the child of disappeared people.

So when I think about how I was set on the path to write for social change and to bring awareness to human rights, it has to go back to that afternoon in that movie theater watching a film.

My Chilean-Argentinian heritage is one I cherish and which I draw a lot of my voice and strength as a writer.

As an American-born child of immigrant parents, I’m looking for answers about identity and my place in the world; what it means for me to be American. In an interview Bruce Springsteen once said, “I’m just trying to find answers. If I find some for myself then maybe I can find it for you, too.” And that’s what I try to do every time I sit down to write.