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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


 Nostalgia for the Light

Directed by Patricio Guzman (2010)

Back in the Space Age, when men walked on the Moon, I was inspired to become an teenage amateur astronomer, taking my telescope into our back garden in Leytonstone and peering up into sky, vainly searching for a gap in the clouds.

They donít have that problem in the Atacama Desert where the air is so dry only the wispiest white filagrees get between the telescopes and the stars. In the 1970s, as my focus turned from emprical observation to cosmological speculation, the exciting news about the Universe came from places like this.

Itís become commonplace to say that when we gaze deeply in to space we are really looking into history. Itís a kind of upwards archaeology, and Patricio Guzmanís documentary, currently showing in the UK, takes the astronomy of the Atacama as a kind of metaphor, or simulacrum, for the people of Chileís quest for the truth about their own past.

On the desert floor, below the skyward-staring ivory gleam of the observatories, women scratch at the dry, salty, dust, their downcast eyes searching for their Disappeared, the relatives killed by the Pinochet regime at about the same time as those great cosmological discoveries were first being made on the hills above.

One of them wonders whether the telescopes could be turned round to help them. And perhaps, Guzman subtly suggests, thatís not so fanciful.

An astronomer is studying the spectrum of a star. Sharp downward spikes in the graph indicate the presence of calcium, the starís bone structure, he says. And the women are searching for bones, mostly slivers and crumbs scattered like stardust across the desert.

The sisters of the Disappeared question their own sanity. Their tireless efforts to find their loved ones, to piece together a history from such tiny fragments, are surely futile, harder even than the search for the origins of the Universe in depthless space.

But keeping the dead alive in this way is political as well as personal. To accept and move on, as they always tell us to do, is to forget, to concede defeat to brutality. We are our histories, the histories of the skies and of the dust, and they are the materials from which we make our futures.

August 26, 2012

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