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Published at: Feb. 8, 2011, 10:07 a.m. CST



As a professional astronomer, and occasional subject in astronomical
documentaries, I’m always interested when I see an astronomy-themed
feature or documentary at a film festival.  I’m generally already well
versed in the subject matter, but I’m just interested in the process
-- what do they have footage of, what angle are they taking, who did
they talk to, how did they pace it?  So when I saw that NOSTALGIA FOR
THE LIGHT was on the program at TIFF, I really wanted to check it out,
but I think it was screening when I wasn’t in town.  Luckily, I got a
second chance -- the film had its US premiere at the Santa Barbara
Film Festival.

And as it would happen, my interest has only deepened in the
intervening months.  Since then, I’ve been cast as a host in the third
season of a show on the National Geographic channel called KNOWN
UNIVERSE.  We’ve been filming for a few months on that show, and in
addition to being in front of the camera, I’ve been talking to the
writers, producers, director, and show runner about different ways to
get across different astronomical concepts.  My astronomical hero has
always been Carl Sagan, and I absolutely love his series COSMOS.  And
one of my favorite books of his is PALE BLUE DOT.  Harry excerpted a passage of
Sagan reading from the audio book of PALE BLUE DOT a few weeks ago,
one that was blended with modern footage of space and the Earth.  To
me, that is perfection -- contemplative, intellectual, deep, and
moving.  And all in the space of a few minutes.

The preference on my show, and most science shows these days, is big
action, quick cuts, and short explanations.  That isn’t my first
choice for how to do it, but don’t get me wrong, I think we’re doing
great work.  And I presume the network people have done their homework
-- after all, they are highly motivated to achieve maximal return on
their investment.  A fast-paced style of show must attract more
viewers than a more in-depth, contemplative one (sadly, one only has
to compare the box office receipts of, say, ARMAGEDDON and 2001 to
realize that this must be true).  But as a scientist, I really wish I
could just show the observations, put them in context, and explain
them in detail.  There is a kind of profound wonder and mystery about
the cosmos, the key to its allure for me, that you just can’t
cultivate in sound bytes.

All this is a long-winded way of saying that I had all but given up on
deep, long-take, in-depth explorations into the universe in today’s
media environment.  But NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT brings it back, and
shows that this type of astronomical storytelling is just as viable
today as it ever was.  It is an amazing film -- the astronomical
sequences are as good as they get, despite the fact that they probably
didn’t have a huge budget.  In NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT there are many
scenes of telescopes getting set up and slewing into position.  There
are time lapse scenes of the night sky rotating into place, and
astronomers getting prepared.  When combined with the nearly hypnotic
narration, a kind of spell is cast -- one of anticipation, promise,
and hope.  Then when astronomical images of impossible grandeur are
shown, and a big idea is revealed, the payoff is enormous.  Instead of
the over-the-top CG we see in many shows these days, here we just have
the images, and the wonder and excitement of the astronomer explaining
the the secrets of the universe.  CG can be great at getting across a
concept, but it almost never gives me goosebumps.  NOSTALGIA FOR THE
LIGHT did so many times, I lost count.  And I’m a jaded professional.

But NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT has a dark twist up its sleeve, a
counterpoint to the hope and awe that the universe inspires, one that
only deepens its message.  The film isn’t just about the secrets of
the universe being revealed in the Atacama desert in Chile, it is also
about the secrets buried there.  From 1974 to 1990, when Augusto
Pinochet was the military dictator of Chile, he interned 80,000
dissidents, tortured tens of thousands, and murdered thousands.  While
many mass graves have been discovered, the whereabouts of the remains
of many of the “disappeared” are unknown to this day.  NOSTALGIA FOR
THE LIGHT features several heartbroken relatives searching for any
bone, any sign of lost family members, as they tell their
nearly-forgotten stories.  Their confrontations of Chile’s dark past
are intercut with the astronomical revelation of Chile’s bright
present -- descriptions of the vastness of space, of the cosmic origin
of the calcium in the bones of the uncovered skeletons, and tales of
stellar and galactic birth and death on cosmic scales.   The
juxtaposition of death and the infinite is simultaneously terrifying
and life-affirming.  The experience is not unlike that of a funeral in
a grand cathedral, only without the make-believe.

The weaving together of these two seemingly unrelated strands of
Chile’s DNA is a revelation.  Both involve a deep-seated drive to
understand, and kind of archaeology.  One involves sifting through
desert and the recent past to find tales of both horror and honor.
The other involves excavating the most ancient and closely held
secrets of the universe.  It would be easy to say one uncovers the
face of the Devil and the other the face of God, but that is letting
us off too easy.  Pinochet was a man.  Us at our worse, perhaps, but
human all the same.  Nor do we need to invoke the supernatural to
explain the wonders of the universe.  In fact, it is its adherence to
natural laws that make its explicability all the more profound.
Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg once said, “The effort to understand
the universe is one of the very few things which lifts human life a
little above the level of farce and gives it some of the grace of
tragedy.”  NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT shows that there is little grace in
tragedy, but indeed the effort to understand the universe can be

Two scenes near the end of the film are particularly resonant.  One is
of an astronomer whose own parents will killed by the Pinochet regime,
and was raised by her grandparents.  The details of her parents
disappearance are horrifying.  Yet in their honor she is inspired to
dig deep into the history of the universe to reveal something
timeless.  The other is the story of an older woman who lost a family
member, and is still digging in the desert nearly every day looking
for him.  She is invited to look through a telescope, and her sense of
elation and wonder are powerful.  It it not just the transcendent, but
transcendence seen through the lens of our fragile and fleeting human
existence that makes NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT more than just a superb
festival documentary -- it is one of the best films I’ve seen all

I as happy to hear that NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT won the Nueva Vision
Award for the best Spanish/Latin American film at SBIFF this year.  It
was written and directed by Patricio Guzmán, known for such films as
THE BATTLE OF CHILE and SALVADOR ALLENDE.  Until now, I was unfamiliar
with his work, but from NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT I can tell he’s a


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