Forging a Constellation: The Memory Strategies of Patricio Guzman

The September 24th 1973 cover of Time Magazine.

The September 24th 1973 cover of Time Magazine.

Since the release of Battle of Chile/La Battalla de Chile over the course of three years (1975, 1976, 1979) the films of Patricio Guzman have become internationally renowned for the directors auterism and sensitivity towards his subject matter: Chile. Guzman’s films are analyses of a country scarred by the events of September 11th 1973, when a CIA backed coup overthrew the popular Socialist government of Salvador Allende, leading to the kidnapping, incarceration and death of over 30’000 people. The mnemonic wound caused by such an event has manifested as a national culture of amnesia that has lasted well into the country’s transition to democracy. The intention of Guzman’s films is to resist this culture, in which “the post-dictatorial media landscape continuously projects new images that establish an amnesiac flow of insubstantial data” (Cisneros 2006: 59). This mode of resistance involves the use of memory strategies that utilise film’s chronotopic (space-time) potentiality, re-forging the disconnected past and present. In other words, re-forging memory. Against the overabundance of hyperstimulus pervaded by neo-liberalism Guzman pits a strategy of decelerated storytelling that embraces a poetics of signs, fashioning an aesthetic environment that allows for a more paced consideration than that permitted by “the speed culture of globalisation” (ibid). Guzman’s films pool together signs, creating a constellation of memory before taking their place as a constituent part of that constellation, a process that illustrates “the incorporation of living memory in a public construction of history” (Chanan 2007: 269) and constitutes an act of what Derrida calls “consignation…through gathering together signs” as well as the “institutional implementation” of the text, its admission to collective memory as an archive (Derrida 1996: 3, 4). Here I want to show how the sensible and material display of signs in Guzman’s Nostalgia For The Light/Nostalgia de la Luz (2010) makes possible the re-examination of the lived experience of history and acts as a catalyst for the forging of memory.

We can gain a better understanding of Guzman’s memory strategy by analysing Jacques Ranciere’s definition of memory as “the work of fiction” (Ranciere 2006: 158). Here the word fiction is not used in the singular sense ‘a work of fiction’. Rather, it is derived from the original fingere, meaning to construct or forge. Memory is subject to ongoing construction, the subjective assemblage of data from the objective world, which is then archived pending its re-examination in respect to new data. Cinema is the art best equipped to represent the operations of memory because it is “the combination of the gaze of the artist who decides and the mechanical gaze that records, of constructed images and chance images” (Ranciere 2006: 161). Contrary to a classical Aristotelian poetics that relies heavily on the performance of actors and an adherence to verisimilitude, Ranciere aligns this process with a romantic poetics, a poetics of signs and their assembly. The power of romantic poetics lies in the form’s three-way negotiation between expression, correspondence and metamorphoses. A constituent sign of any narrative may “represent the sense, or nonsense of the whole”. At the same time signs may correspond with one another to form relationships, and this combination “solidifies into an opaque object or deploys itself in a signifying, living form”. Finally, reflection allows combinations of signs to interpret one another and allow themselves to be interpreted (Ranciere 2006: 160). The arrangement of stimulus in such an open-ended structure creates the possibility for myriad interpretations. Of all the cinematic genres, documentary cinema is best suited to the elicitation of meaning because


Documentary cinema is not bound to the “real” sought after by the classical norms of affinities and verisimilitude that exert so much force on so-called fiction cinema. This gives the documentary much greater leverage to play around with the consonance and dissonance between narrative voices, or with the series of period images with different provenances and signifying power (Ranciere 2006: 161).


Romantic poetics deploys itself within documentary as a combination of signs which, like memories, are subject to endless re-examination and re-appraisal. Its poetic power is “already present in the life of language” (Ranciere 2006: 160), giving meaning not just to signs, but, crucially in respect to montage, to the gaps between them, to silence, absence. In this sense every sensible quality of the documentary perpetuates some form of meaning if only by virtue of it’s not being something else. Every sign, therefore, contains within itself the presence of an absence. Why, we might ask, is it that this thing I see before me is this thing and not something else? The interplay between presence and absence catalyses the search for meaning that is a fundamental act in creating a “memory of fiction”. Consideration, for example, of the interview, the oral testimony, makes it clear just how important this interplay is to the documentary filmmaker. As well as representing the opacity and unreliability of memory, the interview, as Thomas Klubock notes “illuminates the problems of memory and oral testimony, as well as the complicated relationship between the interviewer and the person whose memories are being interrogated: (Klubock 2003: 275). The necessary lack of any such thing as an objective account means that there are gaps and distortions in the story, and these “direct historians toward unexplored areas”. In other words, straddling the lines between ambiguity and specificity, romantic poetics allows for the creation of “documentary as a history that can free memory from repression” (ibid).

In his work on the figure of memory in Chilean cinema, Cisneros (2006) draws a correlation between Ranciere’s theory of film aesthetics and Guzman’s memory strategy. He finds Ranciere’s “overabundance of information” in the contemporary media landscape, placing Guzman’s films in conflict with the memory strategies of the Pinochet regime and the frenetic media output surrounding the transition to democracy. The primary concern is resistance to a culture of amnesia that operates by “installing an insubstantial transience through the continuous flow and replacement of mediated images that blind through a hyper-visible simulacrum” (Cisneros 2006: 59). Blaine (2012) takes this a step further, identifying the source and perpetuation of amnesiac culture as the neo-liberalism instituted by Pinochet and the transitional government’s collusion with it. The refusal to properly acknowledge the past was a part of the new governments strategy for preserving political legitimacy and avoiding the prosecution of Pinochet for human rights abuses. Thus


Instead of encouraging a true reckoning with the past and the conflict and the re-opening of wounds that this would surely imply, the consistent impulse during the transition was to avoid disagreement and to create a highly questionable “consensus”. This process included…media policies that favoured conservative owned and controlled media outlets and contributed to the disappearance of the array of leftist independent media that had emerged during the dictatorship (Blaine 2012: 121).


Meanwhile, in its antithetical stance toward the forging of memory, neoliberalism rouses an orgy of hyperstimulus that demands attention for that which can barely be grasped by consciousness. In a BFI interview Guzman attributes the creation of this media landscape to a Chilean political class who “during the entire period of political transition worked with timidity and prudence. We think that there’s a kind of pact between them and the military. Otherwise, why is their memory so lacking?” (Guzman 2010). Cisneros highlights the characteristics of Guzman’s strategy of resistance toward the culture of forgetfulness enacted through this pact. The task is to confront the pervasion of amnesia with a language that can “tear the surface of the image market” and “recover film for memory” (Cisneros 2006: 60, 61). This involves the fashioning of a space of resistance that is embodied within Guzman’s films as an aesthetic of decelerated images. However, this space is inseparable from the environment in which it is situated. The challenge is to forge a memory strategy “that neither redraws linear continuities of history and tradition nor contributes to today’s global visual culture, but that nevertheless produces contemporary images of that past conception of history” (Cisneros 2006: 60). Guzman realises this motive in the opening scene of Salvador Allende (2004), his film biography of the former president. The camera remains static while showing us a number of personal items that belonged to Allende: a wallet, watch, Socialist Party manual with his name written in it, his presidential sash. A hand inspects these items for the audience as if to give a more robust perspective of them, while the occasional cut to a close-up allows for a closer inspection. The long duree of the shots and the slow, infrequent cutting reflects the historicity of the objects being put on display. They provide a material center-point on which memory can focus, and we are given adequate space in which to ruminate on what we see. With these first few shots Guzman sets the pace with which we cross a bridge back to the past, showing historical objects in a way that resists the redrawing of “linear continuities of history and tradition” (ibid). See an interview with Guzman on nostalgia, memory and revolution here:


Allegory connects these films to memory through the formers embrace of the discontinuities and ruptures inherent in the latter. As well as invoking the interplay between presence and absence, this method of allegorising memory can take on many guises. Rodriguez (2012), for example, connects the metaphor of the ruined memory to the visual presence of the ruin. This paves the way for a further connotation: the ruin of the documentary film as a form. The ontological status of the ruin, it’s limits as a site of memory, as well as the limitation on memory implied by the fact of something ruined, comes to signify a memory struggling to piece together what happened. The process manifests in the framing of ruins, as in Guzman’s filming of the La Moneda palace bombing during the 1973 coup, which he included as archive footage in his later film Chile: Memoria Obstinada/Chile: Obstinate Memory (1997). Images such as these become “fragments of the petrified unrest and inevitable decay of the nation-state” (Rodriguez 2012: 133). They provide a window to history “that cannot be separated from the present” (ibid), eliciting a historical confrontation with catastrophe that is all the more haunting given the nation-states ongoing complicity with violence. Rodriguez employs Walter Benjamin’s theory on the ruin and its relationship to the fragment, explaining how “confronting history as it “decays into images”” allows the documentary filmmaker to “explode the homogeneity of the epoch, thus revealing “a constellation of dangers”” (ibid). Framing the ruin, then, has a double function for Guzman: it acts as a point of contradiction to the neoliberal zeitgeist while contributing to the forging of memory by providing a sensible source between the present subject and the past trauma, fulfilling the psychoanalytic motive of allowing the subject to remember without them having to repeat the symptoms of their forgetting.  Freud, remarks Chanan (2007), discovered that people are not suffering from their memories, but from their forgetting. Guzman’s framing of ruins in Obstinada Memoria acts as an archive, a set of signifying traces that forge memory through the use of signs that are continuously renewed by myriad interpretations. The framing, and re-framing of the bombing of La Moneda that occurs throughout Guzman’s films takes into account the ongoing creation of hindsight and the space this provides for another interpretation of history. The framing strategy employed is simple, although it connotes great complexity: repetition over time. Yet these interpretations are anchored in concrete historical events, a material basis that, as we have seen in the opening scenes of Salvador Allende, is vital to the forging of memory. Regarding, for example, the process of mourning delayed by the search for those who were ‘disappeared’ during Pinochet’s reign, Rodriguez writes


If we cannot follow the existing traces [of memory] back to an event, a document or a missing body, then how can we interrelate the remains to produce a memory of absence? When the storage banks have been emptied, the question that arises is: how to bind the few remaining vestiges so that their visibility becomes the index of an invisible absence they cannot represent? (Cisneros 2006: 61)


Guzman faces the problem of “producing images of that era without producing the temporality undergirding it” (Ibid). This would be to re-produce the kind of hyperstimulated hostility towards the forging of memory espoused by neoliberalism. Here, however we see another advantage of romantic poetics: the space it gives for signs to correspond with each other across “uneven temporalities and heterogeneous regimes of the image” (Ranciere 2006: 165). Correspondence between signs induces the metamorphosis of signifying forms, allowing historical images to be produced without re-producing the atmosphere in which the trauma took place. History becomes accessible across generations as these forms speak to each other and change over time. Films themselves as signs, as well as the multitude of signs through which they are constituted are subject to ongoing interpretation as new generations supplement them with different memories. As Derrida informs us, this notion of accessibility is fundamental to the archive and the contribution it makes to the forging of collective memory. The act of gathering together signs, what Derrida calls consignation, is gravely affected by censorship, since this limits the scope of collective memory. Guzman’s films consign their constituents into a single body of text before the whole text as a sign enters the realm of public discourse, contributing to collective memory. The archive, therefore, is of a circular nature that continuously returns to the subject (as memory) and informs collectively on a multi-generational level. As Guzman remarks in Salvador Allende “the past doesn’t pass, it vibrates and twists with the moves of my life”. Access to this past is at risk of being cut off (and indeed was cut off in Chile) by a change in regime that establishes limitations on memory through secrecy and censorship. See Guzman’s film Salvador Allende here:


The lasting effect of Pinochet’s regime and its brutal characteristics is a theme that unites Guzman’s post-coup documentaries. His latest, Nostalgia de la Luz, is set in the Atacama Desert, the site of many unmarked graves of the ‘disappeared’ and home to numerous observatories because of the unparalleled clearness of its skies. It also happens to be, as the narration explains, the “one small brown patch” on our planet “that has absolutely no humidity”. The film comprises three strands that are related through the theme of a search for answers and the uncovering of history. Astronomers search from their observatories for the beginnings of life in space while archaeologists seek out history in the land of the desert. Meanwhile, Guzman follows a group of women as they seek out the remains of their disappeared friends and relatives. Given that the first interview isn’t until fifteen minutes into the film, Nostalgia should not be looked at simply as a documentary about the searches going on in the Atacama Desert. Nor does it present these searches as simply allegorical for the loss brought about by the coup. Rather, the film creates a “memory of fiction” by looking at the nature of memory, history and the paradox between presence and absence. Guzman finds strategies of framing materiality that open up the past, allowing for the continuous projection of future possibilities through the production and re-production of historical materiality. 

The opening shots of an old German telescope set the tone of the film in a number of ways. Each shot focuses on a different component of the object, a handle, wheels, gyroscope, all in movement as it turns to focus at the sky. We then see the telescope as a whole, and this juxtaposition is a prelude to the complex idea of history contained within the film: that it must be analysed through a lens made up of multiple components, factors, objects and, finally, people. “The concrete”, as Marx explains “is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity in the diverse” (Marx 1973: 101). These first few shots also announce the decelerated aesthetic that is present throughout the rest of the film. The following shots of the moon show how it is covered in celestial pockmarks, imprints that indicate a happening. In their multitude, these marks could be seen as simply allegorical for the lives affected by the dictatorship. On the other hand, these marks are present signs that signify an absent history, an absence represented by the physical emptiness of the crater. The scarred body of the moon points to a history that began before people existed. Its display sets the precedent for the theme of the original impression, “an impression that is no longer an archive but almost confuses itself with the pressure of the footstep that leaves its still-living mark on a substrate, a surface, a place of origin” (Derrida 1996: 4).

This theme is extrapolated primarily through interviews with astronomers and the incredible shots of space that Guzman laces throughout the film. As he explains, he used to think that our origins could be found on Earth, but has since changed to the opinion that “memory lies with the stars”. Through these signifying forms the paradox of presence/absence comes into play. The stars present us with an appearance about which information is absent, catalysing the search for an explanation. This carries out the same function as the silence of the interviewee. Guzman does not cut his interviews into hermetic sound bites. He allows them to go on speaking, and for the silence to fill any pause. In an interview with Violetta, one of the women searching in the Desert, he allows her to be present on screen for at least five seconds before she begins talking. Similarly, the grandparents of Valentina Rodriguez are kept in a shot that has them staring motionlessly at the camera while she narrates over the shot. A director does not allow diegetic time to be taken up by silence unless he is trying to exemplify silence. This is also part of the films strategy of deceleration. The opening credits run in silence, which is broken by the sound of an observatory telescope being pointed toward the sky. The themes enunciated in the shots of the moon are connected to lived experience through a transition that draws attention to the similarity between the pockmarks and sunspots reflected through the branches of a tree. We then find ourselves in a quiet house, the space of resistance in which Guzman’s memory strategy begins to take shape. This sequence, more than any other in the film, is a product of his subjective memory. As he explains in a separate interview


When I speak of nostalgia I remember in my childhood a country before cell phones, where you watched the airplanes pass, where everything seemed to be asleep. Where if water was dripping in the kitchen you heard it throughout the house (Guzman 2010)


Nostalgia is enacted through the camera’s focus on objects within the house and the narration of the director: a radio, the arms of a chair, a table. The piecing together of these fragmentary parts of a whole is representative of the piecing together of memory, and at the same time signifies the opacity of memory, since the act of piecing together implies a continuous absence. Nostalgia, it seems, is the feeling brought about through the filling of this absence. Similarly to the opening sequence of Salvador Allende, Guzman is displaying objects through straight-on, static shots and infrequent though paced cutting. We are shown objects in the manner of a continuous slideshow, as if the director is attempting to spark off a series of connections between our thoughts and these objects in the forging of a constellation of memory. The film’s focus on matter activates the materiality of the film itself, both of which are shown to be in a constant state of flux. It is this state that allows us to constantly re-forge memory as we navigate the world. “Only the present moment existed” Guzman explains as the film cuts from object to object. In a later interview, the astronomer, Gaspar, explains how sound and light signals take time to travel to our senses. “The present” we are told “is a fine line”. “A puff of air would destroy it”. The Atacama Desert, however, is a place where “human remains are mummified and objects are frozen in time”. In the same way that stars have the appearance of being still, the Desert itself harbours a history that has yet to be uncovered. It is a site where lives have halted, unable to move forward for want of a lost connection to the past.

Frozen lives are represented through the films display of frozen objects. The archaeologist explains to us how Chile has never acknowledged the mistreatment of Indian miners earlier in the 20th century. This unacknowledged past comes to the fore when we enter a barn next to a graveyard. Again the camera pays specific attention to objects: dusty old volumes of engineering manuals, a stack of unopened bottles, an old jacket hanging from a rafter. These are the remains of dead nomadic miners of the 19th century. Cuts from shot to shot are laced with the solitary sound of spoons hitting each other as they dangle from the ceiling on strings being slowly brushed by the air. The present as a “fine line” is shown to us through a close up on the strings from which the spoons hang. The shot is framed as such that we do not see the spoons or the rafter, just a series of strings flicking off dust and reflecting sunlight as they reverberate. Every memory has its connection to something else. This allegory shows us how memory operates in the present, vibrating and twisting between the past and the future. Yet this is a place where objects are “frozen in time”. Time, however, does not stop moving forward, as exemplified by the cut to a shot of a train moving across the screen. The sound of the spoons overlays the cut, finally being drowned out by the horn of the train as it powers through the Desert. Each carriage represents a segment of time, of ‘progress’ away from a past that is “frozen” because it remains part of an unacknowledged history in a culture of amnesia. That Guzman would be critical of such a linear materialisation of time indicates the train as allegorical for the kind of determinism espoused by neo-liberal strategies that seek to compartmentalise history. That is, an indication of the kind of strategy the film aims to resist. 

While the astronomers, as the archaeologist, Lauturo, explains, “built a giant telescope to bring two seemingly incompatible things [man and the stars] together” the film plays a part in resisting the amnesiac culture by pulling together disparate stories of different groups who search for history in their own way. The Derridean act of consignation allows these strands to speak to each other, taking their place as nodes within an active constellation. This inter-subjectivity pauses the amnesiac flow of information, giving rise to a new kind of dialogical voice that strengthens rather than impedes the memory. “I am convinced” Guzman says “that memory has a gravitational force. It is constantly attracting us”. We see how, in the process of production, the film itself becomes an object of attraction, as the paths of the women had never crossed with those of the astronomers despite their close proximity. The film bridges a gap between two nodes in a constellation. Shots of solitary figures against the vast Atacama backdrop exemplify the scale of the task faced by the women as the astronomer compares their search to his. Here we cut to shots of myriad galaxies frozen in space. The forward movement of the camera represents the continuing search as the film cuts to a shot of a woman walking forward through the desert. Again the connection between these two shots is made stronger through the sound that overlays the cut. The desolate wind of the Atacama Desert purveys the wider connotation of the ‘winds of history’. Guzman discusses Nostalgia for the Light in a BFI interview here:


Guzman connects shots using sound overlays as well as transitional fades. In the latter case, these create a visual ambiguity that reflects that of memory. At the beginning of the film there is a transition between a shot of a Chilean street and a room full of objects. Here the narration changes to the topic of the coup. Meanwhile, a continuous visual overlay connects both shots. Yet it remains unclear what this overlay is. At first it appears to be stars. Later it seems to be dust lit up by sunlight, not actually a separate shot laid over another. We see these objects, shrouded in some kind of dust, the origins of which is unknown to us. Where do these memories come from? The dust plays a part within Guzman’s memory strategy, acting as a catalyst in our search for the meaning of the memory objects presented to us. As a transition it establishes a connection not just between the shots, but in itself as first stars, then dust, showing us a historical continuity between the Earth and space. Dust is also what fills apparently empty space, linking seemingly discrete entities. Finally, it is only in relation to the other objects on screen that the status of the dust changes, forcing us to re-examine it in respect to new sensory data, new memories. “In this visual order”, according to Cisneros


The conditions of visibility remain obscure, as the living images are not exterior images of some inner substance, but apparitions arising from a dream of things to come, flickering unsteadily in the disjointed present. It is the cinema, long inhabited by spectres from the valley of shadows, that has most developed this particular visibility (Cisneros 2006: 70)


Guzman also draws connections between archaeology and astronomy while creating open-ended shots and sequences that resist any restriction to a single meaning. In one of these shots we see an ancient rock carving at the bottom of the screen and an observatory situated at the top, facing upwards at the sky. Compositionally, this tells us that answers can be found on Earth or in space, by archaeology and astronomy. The upward trajectory of the shot allegorises the ‘progress’ or elevation of humanity from Earth to sky, indicating, in other words, a collective intellectual development. What Guzman really wants to stress with this shot, however, is how we are oriented towards the future in respect to the past. Like the three different strands, the components of this shot speak to each other, making a comment on the nature of history in a manner that highlights the “irreducible discrepancy between the two temporal regimes” of Pinochet’s neo-liberalism and Allende’s democratic Socialism (Cisneros 2006: 70). This discrepancy is extrapolated in the section about the Chacabuco concentration camp that Pinochet set up in the Atacama Desert, a place that would have housed many of those who were disappeared and never returned. The first shot of Chacabuco is black and white archive footage. It is the last in a series of shots that begin with a display of the giant telescope slowly moving into position. This is followed by a shot of one of the former prisoners, Luis, looking up at the stars through an old piece of equipment that another astronomer, Dr Alvarez, taught him how to make while they were in the camp. This middle shot provides the buffer between the present and the past, asking us not to look at the latter through the lens of a hyper-stimulated culture. The past is reflected back at us through a contrast between the upward facing shot of Luis looking at the stars and the downward facing aerial shot of Chacabuco.

The camera follows Luis around Chacabuco as he recounts how Dr Alvarez taught a group of men to chart the constellations of stars. Shots of the buildings run like a procession of still photographs as Luis tells of how the group was eventually shut down by the guards who became “convinced that the constellations could help the men to escape”. We are shown the map of constellations that Luis drew while in Chacabuco. This narrative is followed by that of an architect, Miguel Lawner, who had been imprisoned in five different camps and memorised each one. He now reproduces them by drawing from memory. These two forms of documentation are conducive to those carried out by the astronomer and the architect. The first charts the stars, the second a more recent history that is embodied by the ruins of Chacabuco. I am reminded of Walter Benjamin’s theory on how “confronting history as it “decays into images”” allows the documentary filmmaker to “explode the homogeneity of the epoch, thus revealing “a constellation of dangers”” (Rodriguez 2012: 113). Here the epoch of the Pinochet regime is exploded through the display of the ruin, and the prevailing of memory that is constituted by the charting of two different histories: that of the stars, and that of the prison camps. The drawings we see are maps, subjective accounts of history that are committed to collective memory via the films consignment of them and its institutional implementation as an archive of signs. In this way the constellation of stars recorded by Luis is replicated as the constellation of material signs pooled together by Guzman. The environment of the Atacama Desert, Lauturo tells us “facilitates our access to evidence of the past”, and if this is true of the Desert then it is true of the memory strategy of Guzman’s’ film.

Ultimately, Ranciere’s “memory as a work of fiction” arises out of the space between presence and absence, the process of connecting the past with the future. Guzman’s catalogue of films is an example of this never-ending process. However, an absence, a loss of memory as a result of trauma, cannot be filled or recovered by appealing to the neo-liberal environment that induced the trauma in the first place. The recovery of memory is the recovery of the future, and the method or strategy of recovery will determine what is recovered, and therefore what is projected. The possibility of myriad possibilities is what Guzman projects through framing materiality in such a way so as to multiply the historical meaning of objects, artefacts, fragments, ruins. This dialogical memory strategy continues to act as a point of resistance to the monological voice imposed on memory by the neo-liberal hyperstimulus. See the trailer for Nostalgia for the Light here:


Author: Anthony Killick

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