The luster and gleam of the stone, though itself apparently glowing only by the grace of the sun, first bring to radiance the light of the day, the breadth of the sky, the darkness of the night. The temple’s firm towering makes visible the invisible space of air.
—Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art”
Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are […] What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.
—Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays
Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light (2010) begins with a black screen and the sound of metal gliding against metal. A series of close-ups show the internal machinations of a large interstellar telescope, which creaks and groans as it rotates slowly before banging loudly into place. The camera looks up at the high, domed ceiling of the observatory. Two sliding doors scrape open to reveal a large rectangular aperture. As the doors part, white light pours through the opening and the entire screen fades to white.
Film critic Dennis West interprets the opening sequence of Nostalgia for the Light as a metaphor for shedding light on the past by exploring its visible traces in the present. In his view, the film illuminates “subjects often difficult to see [without] the light of truth, of knowledge, of memory, of justice.”1
Yet in the documentary’s opening sequence, light enacts a metaphorical erasure by illuminating the screen until it blinds the viewer. By featuring optic technology designed to enhance what is otherwise invisible to the naked eye as well as the transcendent and blinding light of the sun, the film’s opening sequence sets up a tension between the desire for visual enlightenment and the failures of visual representation. Rather than seeking to record and display historical fact, Nostalgia for the Light enacts the ethical imperative to continually search for truth and meaning at a time when there is willful blindness and forgetfulness among the Chilean public.
Unlike other countries that have made significant efforts to bear witness to a violent and oppressive past, Chile struggles to directly address the human rights abuses that took place during the military rule of General Augusto Pinochet from 1973 until 1990. While the subsequent democratic government did create the National Commission on Truth and Reconcilia tion, otherwise known as the Rettig Commission,2 very few military leaders and political operatives have been taken to trial; and only one, General Manuel Contreras Sepúlveda, was convicted.3 Tragically, there were no public hearings where victims could face their abusers and speak the truth of the events. While numerous sitios de memoria, or memory sites,4 have been erected to memorialize the names and fates of torture victims and the disappeared, Chile has yet to directly address its past and hold those responsible for countless human rights abuses to account. As one returned exile explains in Nostalgia for the Light, many of her therapy clients are former torture victims re-traumatized after encountering their former abusers on the street. Because so few have been held accountable, they are free to go about their lives within the very community they once subjugated.
The numbers of those killed or tortured are staggering, with some estimates reaching into the tens of thousands, not including the thousands more detained in prison camps.5 Many of the remains of those who were kidnapped and tortured during this time have never been recovered. The fate of “the disappeared” continues to be a source of ongoing trauma for the family and friends of these victims. It is against this backdrop that Guzmán makes his documentaries, producing a kind of cine de memoria devoted to the need to bear witness rather than the official stance that seeks to repress cultural memories of Chile’s traumatic past. Guzmán has produced a series of documentaries dealing with Chile’s recent history, including The Battle of Chile (1975-9), Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997), The Pinochet Case (2001), and Salvador Allende (2004).
Nostalgia for the Light is an essay film that uses poetic imagery and introspective voiceover narration instead of the expository mode of address common to documentary. It is a deeply personal film that uses the filmmaker’s childhood fascination with astronomy as its primary structuring metaphor for digging into Chile’s past. Released in 2010, the film has some distance from the original traumas of the late twentieth century as the country adjusts to the reinstatement of a democratic electoral system and a largely neoliberal, globalized economy. Unlike some of Guzmán’s earlier documentaries that deal directly with historical events, Nostalgia for the Light is more concerned with the ongoing cultural trauma that continues decades after the 1988 referendum. Some have criticized the film for not doing more to fill in the gaps in the historical record. Indeed, the film does not give a straightforward historical account, nor does it directly testify to the atrocities of the Pinochet regime. Tony Rayns of Sight and Sound laments the film “illuminates nothing about either the crimes or our memory of them.”6 Christopher Sharrett of Senses of Cinema also sees the film as problematic, suggesting it offers “a kind of metaphysical escapism, an everything-is-connected ethos” that “seems increasingly remote from the idea of justice.”7 He compares the film’s emphasis on stargazing with politically bankrupt practices like meditation, which emphasize individualistic and inward coping mechanisms instead of socially conscious political action.
In contrast to Guzmán’s other films on the subject, which do more to “illuminate” the history of Chile, Nostalgia for the Light works through a set of ideas and material realities that resist the type of documentary disclosure that Rayns and others seek. The film’s play on the metaphor of light emerges out of this tension between revealing concrete historical truths, and the blindness, secrets, and disappearances that prevent this very imperative. Guzmán’s formal choices in the opening sequence reflect the film’s concerns with probing a traumatic and opaque past that has yet to be properly addressed through truth and reconciliation, and endlessly searching for the victims whose remains have disappeared and may never be recovered. The film’s opening scene speaks not only to these concerns, but also to the underlying desires and contradictions of the documentary project broadly. Inspired by the film, this article explores a central tension between insight and what remains out of sight despite the scrutinizing gaze of the camera or telescope. A film like Nostalgia for the Light illustrates the underlying desire of the documentary project to uncover the deeper truths hidden beneath surface appearances and at the same time the film recognizes the material realities of absence and loss that defy direct visualization.
In exploring this tension, the documentary reveals that illumination may not be the only means of engaging with history ethically. For example, artist and scholar Barbara Bolt asks the rhetorical question, “What if there is too much light? What if, in the glare of the midday sun, nothing is revealed?”8 The question comes from her experience painting the Australian landscape in the Kalgoorlie desert where the light of the unrelenting sun tends to distort rather than enhance vision. Sunlight in the desert is oppressive, blinding, and deceptive in its ability to produce mirages that trick the eye. She recalls in the desert it “was impossible to use light to render form legible.”9 Under those circumstances the sun’s luminous excess is also physically constraining. Bolt describes being forced to keep her eyes to the ground while walking through the Kalgoorlie. As a result, her view of the landscape changed from the horizontal perspective common to western landscape painting to the textures of the landscape unfolding before her like an unwinding scroll. The brilliant light of the sun engendered a different point of view, one that aligns with the indigenous population who walked the desert for generations before her.
Bolt’s shift in perspective contrasts with the gaze associated with Enlightenment thinking, which presumes mastery by maintaining distance from the object being surveyed. Instead of detached observation, Bolt enacted a performative and ritualistic gaze that views the world in a gradual process of becoming. Similarly, in Nostalgia for the Light the mothers, sisters, and wives of the disappeared, known as the “Women of Calama,” are depicted walking the Atacama Desert bent over, eyes scanning the ground, sifting through debris with their hands. How might we theorize this mode of vision that does not seek to master space, but instead peers down at the ground or looks straight up at the sky rather than out over the horizon? Inspired by Bolt and the wandering figures featured in Nostalgia for the Light, this article engages with the interplay of revealing and concealment in documentary using the materiality of light and air as its lens.
Light and air are useful metaphors for thinking about how documentaries grapple with invisible and ephemeral phenomena as they perform the work of remembrance. Aside from the melancholic string music that characterizes much of Nostalgia for the Light’s soundtrack, several scenes feature the quiet rattling of wind blowing across dry sand, the whispered rustling of leaves, or the tinkling of wind chimes. In these instances, the soundtrack renders perceptible an otherwise invisible force. Air is only made visible through its interaction with the material world; its audible effects indirectly point to the existence of the wind which otherwise resists direct representation. Like the intangibility of light and air, much of the film is concerned with a search for those individuals known as “the disappeared,” whose material absence drives the need for endless digging into the past. But rather than being the source of an intense lack that must be resolved, the film’s haptic soundtrack and overall thematic structure maintain the ambivalent duality between absence and the unbearable presence of loss. With this in mind, the following analysis will lay out how the film enacts a mode of witnessing that is best characterized by an endless, active searching exemplified by the various figures who traverse the Atacama Desert. Drawing from Luce Irigaray’s theorization of the ways in which light and air separate and connect us, this article will argue for the way Nostalgia for the Light attends to the liminal space in-between, enacting the “look of love” as described by philosopher Kelly Oliver in her book Witnessing: Beyond Recognition.
As part of its overall thematic structure, Nostalgia for the Light draws a parallel between astronomers and archaeologists, two professions devoted to unearthing and deciphering the past whether it is the scope of cosmic or human history. Their project mirrors the documentary project of seeking out traces of the past to gain new insights on our present circumstances. Documentarian and essayist Dai Vaughan asserts documentary is the visual form most concerned with making “things glow with their own light” by giving things new life and meaning when projected on a screen.10 Indeed, metaphors of light often find their way into discourses about the documentary project. For example, the “father of documentary” John Grierson characterizes documentary as a form of education designed to enlighten audiences on important social issues of the day. He argues cinema makes use of “modern powers of illumination” to reveal the truths buried within the raw material of recorded reality.11 Promoting the documentary project, Grierson asserts documentaries function as “searchlight[s] on democracy” in their capacity to expose the hidden shadows of authoritarianism.12 Elsewhere, Grierson extols documentary’s ability to “light up” the life of the viewer “with a sense of active citizenship.”13 Thus documentary’s illumination is threefold: it casts light on the world exposing a deeper reality, it transcribes the world into projected light on a screen for all to see, and it invigorates the inner light of the viewer.
The different ways Grierson uses light to describe the power of documentary, particularly his use of light as a force of truth that invigorates the human spirit, mirrors the metaphors of light found in western philosophy. As philosopher Hans Blumenberg explains, light “can be a directed beam, a guiding beacon in the dark, an advancing dethronement of darkness…but also a dazzling super-abundance, as well as indefinite, omnipresent brightness containing all: the ‘letting-appear’ that does not itself appear, the inaccessibility of things.”14 In Plato’s allegory of the cave, for example, the shadowy interior of the cave is contrasted with the sunlight outside that functions as a metaphor for truth and clarity of vision. Though the sun’s radiance connotes enlightenment in the allegory, it also blinds the prisoners with its “dazzling super-abundance” as they emerge from the cave’s entrance.15 The sunlight defies visuality as something analogous to the inner light of the thinker. In other words, light is a metaphor for the idea, eidos, a type of insight even as the source of illumination defies vision.
In the modern era, metaphors of light take on a distinctly scientific, investigative connotation. Optic technologies, including photography and film, allow the philosopher or scientist to subject the physical world to the light of examination.16 Indeed, light is the very thread that connects vision and knowledge—it is only through the mediation of light, even the dimmest light, that we are able to observe and contemplate visible phenomena. The emphasis on light and vision as the source of knowledge corresponds with an increased interest in the physiology of sight during the Enlightenment period, along with the contemporaneous invention of ocular devices that extend human perception and allow for greater scrutiny of the empirical world. The documentary idea similarly brings together practices of looking and the pursuit of knowledge drawn from Enlightenment era thinking. Documentary theorist Brian Winston notes that early on the documentary camera became associated with scientific inquiry, particularly in fields like anthropology and sociology. In the early 20th century, the camera was treated like an observational tool or an inscription device analogous to a thermometer.17 Similarly, Vaughan’s comment that documentaries have the power to make things “glow with their own light” implies the documentary camera has the capacity to draw out and enhance the meaningful intangibles from deep within the object it records. As philosopher Cathryn Vasseleu remarks, seeing light is often “a metaphor for seeing the invisible in the visible, or seeing things in an intelligible form.”18 The same could be said for light metaphors used to describe documentary visual culture, rhetorically enabling a medium of sight to give us insight into what otherwise remains beyond ordinary powers of vision.
The blinding light of the sun in Plato’s allegory and the power of optic technology to reveal hidden truths in the modern era both suggest a co-implicated relationship between visibility and invisibility. Akira Lippit argues that the confluence of technologies like cinema, x-ray imaging, and psychoanalysis at the turn of the 20th century reflects a visual episteme geared toward interiority and invisibility, which he calls a modern “epistemology of the inside.”19 As a case study, he points to the implicit visuality in Sigmund Freud’s dream about his patient Irma, in which Freud imagines Irma’s throat as the entryway to her psyche.20 According to Lippit, Freud sought a way to visualize the unconscious and therefore transform something otherwise inaccessible and invisible into visual form. In the case of Irma, the psyche becomes something inscribed on the surface of the interior of the body, which Freud is then able to access through her mouth. Drawing a parallel to visual technology, Lippit argues the impulse to access one’s “interior as interiority” manifests itself with the invention of x-ray photography, which reflects a similar desire to transgress the surface of the body and visualize the subject’s interior.21
Freud’s dream and the x-ray image are both examples of what Lippit calls “avisual” objects, referring to “a representation of formlessness, a view of the unseeable, a picture of that which cannot be seen. Figurative and abstract, avisual.”22 Avisuality speaks to an imaginary depth that takes place at the surface, transforming the nonvisible dimensions of enworlded existence into visual terms. It is possible to conceive of the documentary project as one largely geared toward avisuality. The desire to illuminate the world and make things “glow with their own light,” poetically evokes the idea that documentaries seek to visualize that which cannot be seen. For example, in Nostalgia for the Light a seventy-year-old woman, Violeta Berríos, explains to the camera her overwhelming desire to find the remains of her loved one, Mario, who went missing during the Pinochet regime. During the interview she fantasizes about a world where the large telescopes could be inverted so they scan the earth instead of the sky, which she illustrates by making the motion of an x-ray gun sweeping the desert for missing bodies with her hand. Perhaps the documentary camera serves as just such an x-ray device, probing the surface of things to gain avisual insights.
In Nostalgia for the Light optic devices that magnify or extend the gaze do not always aid in the acquisition of knowledge. Instead these devices, including the documentary camera itself, confront us with the limits of understanding. In one scene a group of astronomers show a graph that measures the compositions of various stars, which they measure by translating the oscillating wavelength of light into numbers that correspond with known materials. An avisual image, the wavelengths on the graph render perceptible what lies beyond the human capacity to see into deep space. The astronomers then inform the viewer the calcium represented by these waveforms is the same calcium we have in our bones here on Earth. The link between these two “bodies,” celestial and mortal, is reinforced through Guzmán’s use of visual metaphor; at the end of this sequence, black and white photographs of the moon are juxtaposed with close-ups of human bone fragments. The camera magnifies the little hollows and depressions on the surface of the sun-bleached bones, which mirror the cratered lunar surface of the previous photographs. Through visual juxtaposition the bones take on cosmic significance, their vast incomprehensibility made apparent through a process of magnification. The closer the viewer gets the more the image gestures toward an avisual spectrum. Confronted with the stark limits of understanding, the task is set before the viewer to continue searching. The sequence ends with a close-up shot of a skull with empty eye-sockets—a reference, perhaps, to the blindness of contemporary Chileans, but also an image of a returned look from the dead that confronts the viewer with its absolute alterity. Presented with death, the ultimate limit point of understanding, the viewer is left with no readily available truths which prompts further searching.
The avisual quality of Nostalgia for the Light connects the documentary desire to probe deeper with the irreducible differences and mysteries that shape human experience, particularly when it comes to historical trauma. For example, one sequence includes time-lapse imagery of a large telescope observing the night sky. As the night progresses, meteorites streak across the screen forming diagonal lines of light that bisect the circular movements of the stars. An astronomer featured in the film, Gaspar Galaz, muses in voiceover, “Where do we come from and where are we going?” He is both questioning human origins, as well as implying the present is merely an elusive moment in an unceasing continuum stretching from past to future. Later, Galaz tells the camera, “all of our life experiences happened in the past.” Just as sunlight takes several minutes to reach Earth, everything we experience is in fact separated by several millionths of a second even when it seems instantaneous. These facts prompt Guzmán to ask off-camera, “so we don’t see things at the very instant we look at them?” Guzmán’s question is notable for its strange wording—to say we do not see things when we look at them implies visibility is invariably predicated on invisibility, and the things that appear before us have always already disappeared. Galaz agrees with Guzmán’s paradoxical statement, and further explains it is only in our minds that we get the closest to something like the absolute present. Even still, he corrects himself, it takes a moment for one’s mind and bodily perception to align themselves. He touches his shoulder as he speaks and explains an infinitesimal time interval happened between the instant he thought to move his hand, the moment he actually moved his hand, and the moment he perceived his own touch. The astronomer concludes philosophically, “The present doesn’t exist. That’s the trap.” Latching onto this idea, Guzmán suggests off camera that the present is “a very fine line,” to which Galaz nods responding, “a puff of air would destroy it.”
Midway through Nostalgia for the Light, one of the Women of Calama, Vicky Saavedra, shows the camera little fragments of bone she found on the ground in the middle of the desert. This prompts her to share the memory of her brother’s remains being discovered in a mass grave in 1990. At the time, the excavators found only a part of his skull and one foot still in its shoe. His bone fragments were unearthed alongside the partial remains of several others whose bodies had been moved by members of the military seeking to hide evidence of mass murder. Despite these efforts, traces of the grave remained when fragments of the bodies fell out of the bulldozer used to move them, a gruesome act that compounds the violence of their deaths. Speaking to the camera, Saavedra explains her ambivalent feelings about uncovering the grave. She remembers feeling happiness and a modicum of relief after finding a small trace of her brother, but at the same time she describes her state of shock after the discovery. It was only in that moment she realized he was dead, as if he had died the very day she was given his remains. The material presence of her brother’s body thus correlates with the renewed recognition of his absence. Discovering what she was looking for simultaneously resulted in a profound sense of loss. A reminder that “we don’t see things at the very instant we look at them,” recalling Guzmán’s idea from the prior scene. Her brother’s remains contain within them an interval that marks the space between past and present, presence and absence, a historical wound that cannot be sutured over by “filling in” the gaps with its material remnants.
By focusing on liminal spaces and temporalities, Nostalgia for the Light speaks to the desire to illuminate what lies beyond knowledge and simultaneously reveals the impossibility of doing so. For this reason, I turn to Luce Irigaray’s philosophical writings on light and air instead of the Enlightenment approach implied by Grierson’s writing on documentary. Irigaray contends metaphors of light in western philosophy are based on an unacknowledged logic of sexual differentiation. By focusing on the philosopher’s self-originated thought, or his “inner light,” as the source of subjectivity, Irigaray argues western philosophy obscures the true origin of the subject which is childbirth.23 Specifically, she points to Plato’s allegory of the cave claiming that sunlight, understood as the source of meaning, is reached by passing through the cave entrance which she calls the “forgotten vagina” of the allegory.24 She maintains that, while the realm of ideas represented by light has been privileged in western philosophy, the material passage of the cave that supports and provides access to thought has been negated.25
Based on Irigaray’s original work, Vasseleu reimagines light as a material phenomenon useful for thinking about our relational existence in a shared world. She argues light weaves together the intangible and tangible, the transcendental and the immediate like the warp and weft of fabric. She writes, “light is a fabrication, a surface of a depth that also spills over and passes through the interstices of the fabric. The dichotomy between the visible and invisible is itself a framing of photology that gives light its texture.”26 In describing light as a woven fabric, Vasseleu draws from Maurice Merleau-Ponty who characterizes visibility and invisibility, not as opposing forces, but intertwined in our embodied perception of light.27 The name he gives this intertwining is “flesh,” which he uses to describe the gapless realm of the sensible that surrounds the phenomenological subject. When the subject perceives a detail, such as color, it is temporarily plucked from its surroundings before dispersing back into the background sensory experience that forms the fabric of life. This idea takes a figural quality in Nostalgia for the Light as Guzmán’s camera attends to air and light pouring through open windows and doors. Through visual metaphor, Guzmán depicts time, space, and memory unfolding in a perpetual expansion.
For example, an early scene features the cluttered interior of a small apartment. In voiceover, Guzmán explains the apartment evokes memories of his childhood home. The sun-dappled surface of a stucco wall ripples with the shadows of fluttering leaves outside. Heavy, orchestral string music gives way to the gentle sound of wind rustling through the trees. The film then cuts to the interior of the home, peering through the kitchen window onto the tree outside. Guzmán’s camera slowly explores the interior of the space contoured by the high contrast between bright sunlight and deep shadow. He isolates specific features of the space with his camera: an embroidered napkin on a crocheted tablecloth, an upholstered wooden chair, an old transistor radio. The objects are gently used and warn with age and the space is cozy and inviting. There are several sources of light streaming through windows and mirrored surfaces while the constant sound of air blowing gently fills the background behind Guzmán’s introspective voiceover narration. The sequence ends with an exterior shot of the apartment’s front door with a single tree protruding through its front sidewalk. The image then dissolves into the recurring visual of floating dust particles sparkling against a black backdrop. Unable to focus on the tiny particles, the camera transforms the dust into a cloud of shimmering sequins floating across the screen. The light reflected on the dust gradually fleshes out the empty space with its ethereal presence.
In The Evidence of Film, philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy uses the word “ethereal” to explain cinema’s metaphysical properties, which he identifies as cinema’s simultaneity of presence and absence.28 He contends cinema has a “luminous materiality” that on the one hand “provides a continuity” between image and world, and on the other hand “is suspensive, diaphanous, and dissipative.”29 He relates cinema’s “ethereal” presence to “ether” a term that, prior to the nineteenth century, referred to a substance that permeates all of space including the interstices between particles of matter.30 Nancy writes, “Light, air, breath belong to the element of film as its media, through which it passes, travels and comes across refracted, realizing itself.”31 As light emanating from a screen, the cinematic image has the power to expand beyond the edges of the frame, “impregnating” its surroundings. Just as the dust particles fill the empty frame in Nostalgia for the Light, the materiality of cinematic light fills the space between viewer and image.
The recurring visual of particles of light drifting through the frame renders visible the absences that permeate the film. Similarly, the motif of air, as a nonvisible yet material thing, makes sensually present the gaps that both connect and separate singular beings. For example, Nostalgia for the Light features a young mother whose own parents were disappeared during the Pinochet regime. In one scene, she is shown resting peacefully with her infant child laying on her chest in a deep sleep. The infant can be heard breathing softly, rising and falling with the mother’s own gentle exhalations. Similar to her writing on light, Irigaray posits that western philosophy has ignored the presence of air despite it being an essential medium for the existence of life. We are surrounded and penetrated by air. We breathe it in, it sustains us, and yet we cannot appropriate air like we do food and water. For this reason, air is unique in that it must be shared by all but belongs to no one. By way of illustration, Irigaray gives the example of the infant who begins life by sharing its mother’s breath in the womb. After its birth the infant is induced to cry out and fill its lungs with air for the first time, thus establishing its autonomy as an individuated being.32 Thus, even as air brings us together it also separates us, making it an ideal medium for thinking through our relationship to history. Though we are isolated from history we are nevertheless bound to a past that impregnates our current moment with its ethereal presence.
Because many of the victims have “disappeared” in the Atacama Desert, leaving very little behind for others to bear witness, Nostalgia for the Light presents a case study that resists straightforward approaches to remembrance. In instances like this, Kelly Oliver’s conceptualization of witnessing as an attentiveness to the spaces that exist between beings can be helpful. Drawing from Irigaray, Oliver uses the trope of air to counter previous accounts of looking relations that treat the space between subjects as an empty void confronting subjects with a sense of unbearable alienation. Oliver proposes we take into account the density of air and the texture of light when conceptualizing self-other relations, pushing vision in the direction of what she calls “recognition.” She uses the term tentatively, noting that it can be problematic if recognition takes the form of the powerless demanding recognition from the powerful, which risks reinforcing the structures that lead to victimization in the first place: “if the operations of recognition require a recognizer and a recognized, then we have done no more than replicate the master-space, subject-other/object hierarchy in this new form.”33 In contrast, she argues ethical recognition can only come through an acknowledgement of irreducible difference. Recognition can be fostered through an awareness of the presence of the air that connects and separates us, which she calls adopting “the look of love.” She writes, the “loving eye is a critical eye in that it demands to see what cannot be seen; it vigilantly looks for signs of the invisible process that gives rise to vision, reflection, and recognition.”34 The labor of witnessing thus involves the continual work of attending to the avisual relation between subjects, rather than seeking to collapse the difference between self and other. I propose Nostalgia for the Light enacts “the look of love” through the act of searching and attending to the open spaces between bodies, rather than focusing on the incontrovertibility of visible evidence.
Indeed, Nostalgia for the Light seems to search the farthest possible reaches—vast deserts and outer space—to explore a recent history that is otherwise uncomfortably close to home. It is the scale and intensity of difference that perhaps best captures the magnitude of the trauma that is at the heart of the film. Laura Marks argues intercultural films draw our attention to the gaps between experience and legibility by residing in that very chasm between the seeable, sayable, and sensible, particularly in moments of darkness or silence that hold the viewer in suspension or that are otherwise “thin.”35 She believes it is these moments that most closely approach the truth while also recognizing its impossibility. In the Atacama Desert, where the air is “thin” as Guzmán tells us in voiceover, different groups of investigators—archaeologists, astronomers, documentarians, the women of Calama—gather to probe the limits of human knowledge but can only do so in recognition that the search is never concluded. The mysteries of time and of the universe reside beyond what is seeable, sayable and sensible.
The look of love in Nostalgia for the Light emerges in part through its attentiveness to these sensual gaps. One sequence begins with a black and white aerial view of Chacabuco, the largest concentration camp built during Pinochet’s dictatorship. In voiceover, Guzmán explains the camp was built on top of an existing mining camp operated by indigenous workers, linking together layers of unacknowledged oppression in Chile’s history. The film then cuts to the sandy, modern-day ruins of Chacabuco. The buildings remain largely intact, but the wires and fences have been removed. This scene is accompanied by testimony from a survivor, Luís Henríquez, who was imprisoned there between 1973 and 1974. He walks over to a group of names drawn on an outer wall, the writing now partially obscured by the abrasions caused by wind-blown sand. In a close-up shot on his hands, Henríquez points to the names on the wall. He reads them out loud as if they were still fully visible. Guzmán’s voice takes over the soundtrack telling us Henríquez’s “dignity lies in his memory.” The filmmaker continues, “he remembers traces that have been erased” and is therefore “a transmitter of history.” The camera then cuts to a shot of Henríquez from behind looking up at an empty blue sky, his back turned to the camera. Finally, the scene dissolves into a series of shimmers as dust particles are superimposed onto Henríquez’s disappearing figure.
In this scene, only Henríquez is able to “see” what the walls “say.” With his index finger he points to a visible gap in the historical record where the surface no longer serves as a reliable index of the past. Mary Ann Doane explains there are two ways of defining indexical signs. First, an index can refer to the physical impression left by an object signifying its presence, and second, an index can refer to deixis or a “shifter” in language. Words like I, this, here, and now are called “shifters” because they have contingent meaning that is largely dependent on context. For this reason, Doane argues a shifter is “a hollowed-out sign” that “designates something without describing it.”36 In other words, a word like this is an open and incomplete word that is comprehensible only in relation to an absent idea. Doane explains that while the indexical photographic image claims to be a mimetic copy, deixis only purports to barely “touch” the real. Rather than seeing the image as a fixed imprint of the past, touch takes on a different connotation in this context, instead implying a fleeting passage between related objects. In Nostalgia for the Light, the scene with Henríquez illustrates this dialectic between physical trace and diexis. On the one hand, both Henríquez and the wall are material remnants of the past. As Doane says “the trace reconfirms that something exists to be looked at.”37 On the other hand, he and Guzmán can only offer viewers a “hollow” passage that indirectly points to history without making it fully present in our current moment. Instead, the film calls upon the viewer to recognize what is “beyond recognition” and accept the alterity of the past in relation to the present.38
In another scene near the end of the film, the camera slowly pans and tilts across tattered and yellowed photographs pasted to an exterior wall. They are portraits of those who disappeared during the Pinochet regime. Exposed to the elements, the photographs have decayed over time. While some portraits are still relatively legible, others have faded. Some have been reduced to mere frames enclosing a missing picture. These decaying images populate one of the Chile’s many “memory sites” and yet here the memories are gradually disappearing. In her writing about experimental films and videos that feature decaying or damaged images, Marks argues that such images “appeal to a look of love and loss.”39 Films that exhibit visual decay invite contemplation rather than absorption or identification since they are by their nature incomplete and open to interpretation. Because of their contaminated surfaces, “the locus of identification and subjectivity is shifted from the human figure to an image dispersed across the surface of the screen.”40 Though the decaying image creates dispersal, she contends it also has a material, tactile quality that makes its presence felt even as it spreads apart. Indeed, to “love a disappearing image one must trust that the image is real in the first place.”41 What distinguishes the disappearing image from other types of photographic images is the recognition that it once was an indexical trace—and thus possesses an aura of historicity—but the past that it indexes has faded with time. For this reason, disappearing images do not work to expand insight, but rather to acknowledge what remains out of sight. They do not compensate for an absence, but rather let the weighty presence of loss come through.
The uncanny quality of the disappearing image makes it a visual analog to the deterioration and disappearance of the human body through aging, disease, and ultimately death. The gradual decay of the disappearing image produces a sense of loss even as it fails to fade completely, similar to the felt presence of a loved one that lingers on after their death. Because a trace stubbornly remains we are left with “something like a perpetual mourning.”42 Because the viewer has the potential to experience deep feelings of loss when confronted with visual decay, Marks argues the disappearing image evokes a melancholic “loving regard.”43 In the Spanish language the word nostalgia means something more akin to melancholia than its English translation. Unlike English which uses nostalgia to indicate pleasurable, affectionate associations with the past mixed with tinges of sadness, in Spanish nostalgia means feeling sorrow for someone or something dear that is now remote, absent or lost [sentimiento de pena por la lejanía, la ausencia, la privación o la pérdida de alguien o algo queridos].44 Likewise, the decaying photographs that conclude Nostalgia for the Light call upon the viewer to remember what has been forgotten and search for what is missing or has been neglected. The photographs visualize the process of perpetual mourning and embody a duality of presence and absence that troubles easy conceptions of how to engage with the past and its traumas.
In Nostalgia for the Light archaeologist Lautaro Núñez declares we have a moral obligation to remember the dead, especially when the recent past has been secreted away. In an interview in his cluttered office, Núñez argues this moral imperative confronts all of us, including the viewers, who must perform the work of witnessing alongside the justice system and other official institutions. Núñez pointedly remarks that Chileans have failed to acknowledge the human rights abuses of the past, explaining “it is as if this history might accuse us.” Like the oppressive sun of the desert, it seems history can be blinding under its glare. From the interview with Núñez, the film cuts to a jagged wooden cross set against an empty blue sky. In the center of the cross there remains an empty frame where a name might have been legible in the past. Silence takes over the soundtrack so that only the sound of wind blowing across dry grains of sand can be heard. The film then cuts away revealing the cross is part of a large, crowded graveyard marked by hundreds of wooden crosses jutting up from the smooth expanse of the empty desert. In voiceover Guzmán explains this is the graveyard of those who died while working the mines near Chacabuco. The film focuses on a wooden coffin raised above the ground, surrounded by debris. Improperly buried, the coffin was likely torn open by animals and now its occupant lies fully exposed to the desert air. There is a certain amount of symbolism in this image; the metaphorical “buried bodies” in Chile’s past emerge as a real body, exposed but largely forgotten. Yet, a handful of pink and blue roses placed next to the grave marker suggest someone continues the effort of remembrance, even if the body cannot be properly laid to rest.
In Nostalgia for the Light decaying photographs, stardust, and bone fragments are each presented as ephemeral traces of the past. Ephemerality indicates a duality of presence and absence existing at once, which is also the nature of a traumatic experience. Unbearably present and yet impossible to represent, we are left with the question of how to witness atrocities like those committed by the Pinochet regime in Chile, and the need to visualize the weighty presence of those among the disappeared. This tension is made apparent in the documentary, which emphasizes the need to continue searching even as the discovered answers fail to be definitive. The ethical act that remains is to pay attention to the emptiness, gaps and the spaces between, which Oliver calls the “look of love” and Marks describes as “loving a disappearing image.” Rather than shedding light on the subject, which connotes a probing gaze that uncovers the hidden but definitively knowable truths within, Nostalgia for the Light attends to vast open expanses that are nevertheless filled with air and light drawing our attention to the sensual gaps in history that persist.
Laurel Ahnert is a lecturer in the School of Film, Media & Theatre at Georgia State University. She researches ethical questions raised by global documentary films and online media using phenomenology as her philosophical lens. Her work has appeared in journals such as Social Text and New Review of Film & Television Studies.