(Reposted from GreenCine Daily, my thoughts on some of the films screened at the just-concluded SFIFF)
SFIFF 54: Critic's Notebook 1.
By Craig Phillips
There's an ice cream parlor down the street from me that is locally famous for its giant spinning wheel aimed at the indecisive or risk-taking customer. A plethora of flavors are listed on the wheel as well as several "free" spaces. You could end up with marmalade-tobacco crunch (okay, I exaggerate) but you could also really score. No, films are not like ice cream, but this is kind of how I've approached deciding which films to see at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival, while also trying to focus even more than in past years on films that may not have wide distribution. The temptations are there: Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Meek's Cutoff,Beginners - which I did see - are among the distributed films playing at SFIFF 54. But director Graham Legget and his team of programmers (Rachel Rosen, Rod Armstrong, Sean Uyehara and Audrey Chang) have done a fine job populating the fest with gems from around the world.
I also try to mix up my viewing choices also based on directors new and known, between moods dark and light, of various styles and formats. And, sometimes, just based on pure luck and convenience -- or on what the wheel spin tells me. Serendipitous surprises are the greatest pleasure of a film festival. Today and tomorrow I'll write about these pleasures (and at least one disappointment).
Nostalgia for the Light
Patricio Guzmán, whose 1970s documentary trilogy, The Battle of Chile, and his bio Salvador Allende, focused on Chilean political strife, returns with the haunting, extraordinary dual-sided documentary Nostalgia for the Light. The film seems, at first, to be a change of pace for Guzman, as it begins as a look at a series of huge high desert telescopes in Chile's Atacama desert where the air is so incredibly dry that the night sky is crystal clear, perfect for watching the skies. But the film becomes the story of something deeper and darker: Two groups on a quest searching the past for answers, astronomers searching the skies, and in a parallel story. Chileans still searching for their "disappeared," loved ones missing since Pinochet's brutal dictatorship saw a period of terror that "swept away history and science." It's a difficult challenge, to make these two parallel stories jibe not only coherently but of a piece, but Guzman, who narrates as well, turns it into something profound and eerily natural.
The astronomers in the film consider themselves archaeologists of space in a way, only dealing with far more time separation than earth bound historians. "We manipulate the past," says one. The energy from the past takes millions or billions of years to reach us so when they look into the light of stars they are really looking into the past. Something, this film infers, that many on the ground have neglected to do. Guzman pointedly if subtly jabs at Chile's own denial and neglect of history -- the victims are forgotten or ignored by the government and many cataloguers of history, all would rather let the sands of desert cover up these atrocities. (In an odd coincidence, I'd recently watched Costa Gavras' Missing, a fictionalized thriller based on the Pinochet reign of terror, a far different film, of course, but would make an interesting companion piece with Guzman's work.)
Several people featured in the film search the barren desert for the remains of family who were victims of Chilean brutality, critics of Pinochet who were taken and thrown in concentration camps, such as the one in this wasteland near the observatory. One of those surviving prisoners tells Guzman about how in his time there he learned about astronomy, including how to concoct a homemade device that allowed him to measure the constellations, until the military banned astronomy lessons. But he managed to preserve his inner freedom. A woman searches for her brother, digging through the desert in search of the missing, poignantly armed with only a small hand shovel, even more moving when you hear the story.
Nostalgia for the Light is about the paradox of a country (and society) that has ignored so much of its darker past, that has kept its more recent past hidden. Guzman's film is gorgeously photographed, like a dreamscape of the heavens, and of hell on earth. While it doesn't always feel as if every ambitious dot is connected, it is a sober, and sobering work.
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