A fascinating foray into the tragic, horrific history of Chile
Author LP Hartley began his coming-of-age story The Go-Between (a 1970 award winning film from director Joseph Losey, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates) with this memorable line: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."
It's a statement about the importance of understanding events of the past may have occurred for reasons that are difficult to comprehend and accept as being valid or justifiable when examined with the benefit of hindsight.
Recently, we've just seen the 12th anniversary of 9/11, an event etched in all our minds. But, while its social, political and historical significance probably has yet to be fully felt and realised, I bet everyone reading this will be unaware of the fact that 40 years before, to the day, the USA was deeply implicated in an event, the effects of which are still affecting the people of Chile and was every bit as traumatic for them as 9/11 was for Americans.
In 1970 Chile democratically elected Salvador Allende as president. But in 1973 a coup led by the Chilean army under General Pinochet, and encouraged and supported by the US government, overthrew Allende – ironically on September 11 – and ushered in 16 years of military dictatorship during which thousands of political opponents of the junta, including Allende himself, were executed.
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This story has been explored on film already. Missing, a 1982 work directed by Costa-Gavras and starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, told the true story of the hunt by US citizen Ed Horman (played by Lemmon) for his son Charles, a journalist who disappeared during the coup (and was later found to have been murdered).
More recently, Chilean director Pablo Larrain has produced a trilogy of films – Tony Manero, Post Mortem (shown by the Society last year) and No – which looks at this period of his country's history. Now the Society is showing Nostalgia for the Light on September 29, another work to emerge from a country that is still trying to make sense of events in its recent past.
Unlike the other films I've mentioned, this is a documentary. It's located in the Atacama Desert, which is reputedly the driest place on Earth.
The lack of humidity and the thin atmosphere – the desert is around 5,000m above sea level – means it's one of the best places on the planet for astronomy.
There are two major observatories there and staff use the equipment to peer into the sky.
But while they search the depths of space for signs of where we've come from, another equally difficult search is taking place in the surrounding landscape.
The Atacama is full of human remains.
We see the mummified bodies of traders from the ancient past who perished while trying to cross the region. These are being retrieved by archaeologists keen to discover more about the ancient peoples that lived in the country.
But other remains are there too. After the 1973 coup, Pinochet shipped many of his opponents – alive and dead – up to the Atacama and out of the way. Some were simply shoved out of aeroplanes over the Pacific: others were incarcerated in concentration camps until they were disposed of.
The victims' relatives – mostly mothers and wives – have been left without any idea of what exactly happened to their nearest and dearest; so they comb the ground looking for traces that might give the answers they desperately need.
Grim though this all sounds, what emerges from the film is a moving human story as well as a fascinating narrative about time and the significance and fragility of life. The film's director Patricio Guzmán seeks to create a link between the work of the astronomers, the archaeologists and the ordinary women depicted, to illustrate the importance of being able to remember past events, even if finding the evidence is hard and often difficult to make sense of.
Nostalgia for the Light (12a): The Venue, Sunday, September 29, 3pm.
Also showing: Percy Jackson – Sea of Monsters (U): Family Film Club, Saturday, September 28, 2.30pm.
The World's End (15): Saturday September 28, 7.30pm and Tuesday October 1, 4.30pm.
Monsters University (U): Sunday, September 29, 6pm.
Blancanieves (12a): Wednesday, October 2, 2.30pm.