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Movie of the Week: Ethereal cosmic discovery in 'Nostalgia for the Light'

“We can see possibilities no-one has ever seen before. We can go places no-one has ever gone before,” American President Joe Biden said of the James Webb Space Telescope that sent back its first full-colour picture of the cosmos on Tuesday, July 13th. Thought to be the most profound and most detailed view of the universe to date, the image speaks to the microscopic insignificance of human life on earth and our ambitions to find purpose beyond our humble beginnings. 

Looking like a cinematic science fiction creation, the $10bn James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was launched on Christmas Day 2021 and dwarfed the potential of the previous Hubble Space Telescope, capturing the light from galaxies that have taken billions of years to reach our eyes. Of its many snapshots of cosmic life, the most mouth-gaping showed a landscape of stars and celestial fog that formed a vast valley of glittering life well beyond our reach. 

Despite the technical achievements of the JWST, seeming like a futuristic fiction come true; conversely, the data it is collecting is billions of years old, performing an archaeological dig in the thin air of the outer universe. It’s a somewhat hopeless realisation that speaks to the sheer enormity of the NASA mission and the ethereal grandeur of the task at hand, putting the futile purpose of sociological debate back on planet earth into question. 

Such is explored throughout the 2010 documentary Nostalgia for the Light by the Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, a film that puts an extraordinary perspective on one’s own purpose in an ever-expanding universe. 

A complex exploration, Guzmán’s movie reflects on the peak of Chilean astronomy in 1977 when a large observatory was built in the vast landscape of the barren Atacama desert. Built on the promise to become a new scientific marvel, the erection of the site came in tandem with the arrival of the Chacabuco Mine prisons in Atacama, concentration camps built for political opponents to the regime of General Pinochet. 

Many years later, it was discovered that these camps were home to mass graves that had been scattered throughout the desert, attracting grieving families from across Chile to desperately try to uncover their loved ones, spending much of their lives traversing a dusty landscape with their eyes to the ground. 

As the wives and sisters of the fallen hopelessly search for answers, so too do the astronomers, with Guzmán drawing a comparison between the struggle, despite both parties looking in exactly the opposite direction. Both delving into the mysteries of the past to better understand it and find comfort in one’s present, it even transpires that the star-gazers and local archaeologists are looking for precisely the same thing, as the women dig for bones rich in calcium and the astronomers search for remnants of the big bang that contain the very same element. 

A vast exploration of humanity and our own place within a perplexing universe, Nostalgia for the Light displays a Kubrickian grace that suggests that our knowledge of our own position in life is dwarfed by an ethereal higher power. In light of the most fascinating images of the outer cosmos to date, Guzmán’s film is the perfect therapy to guide us through such daunting discoveries.