Bodies in the Sky, Bodies in the Earth: Patricio Guzmán’s Astral Search for the Hemispheric Memory of Settler Genocide

I just heard the news that the Chilean documentary film director Patricio Guzmán has won the Golden Eye Award (L’Œil d’or, le prix du documentaire) for best documentary film at the seventy-second edition of the Cannes Film Festival for his movie La Cordillera de los Sueños (“The Cordillera of Dreams”), part of a trilogy that began in 2010 with Nostalgia de la Luz (“Nostalgia for the Light”) and continued in 2015 with El Botón de Nácar (“The Pearl Button”).1 As of this moment La Cordillera de los Sueños is not yet available for public viewing, so it is the perfect opportunity to go back to the first two films of the trilogy and try to fathom Guzmán’s powerful message in anticipation of the final piece of the puzzle.

I will try to do so here using the valuable but admittedly limited tools of the historian. Taking Chile as an example Guzmán is telling us, I believe, a disquieting story of ongoing settler colonialism, not only in Chile but worldwide. The proof he offers is beautiful, painful and, most important, certain. It leaves no place for doubt. It is now up to us, the viewers, to take stock of Guzmán’s work and to think about the abuses that pervade our society; to become aware, as Lorenzo Veracini puts it, that settler colonialism “is not somewhere else and … is not finished.”2 The structural violence of settler practices is constitutive of our present way of life, wherever we live in the West.

The doubt, of course, may be raised: can the case of a small country like Chile teach us something universal? Can movements in the periphery be felt at the level of the core? What is at stake, in my view, is the importance of seeing national histories in a global perspective. Looking for similar processes around the world, historians may force the nation to look back upon itself. It is possible, then, that in the critique of the brutal practices of some marginal European settlers in the southernmost place of the world there lies a path toward self-awareness.


“We are manipulators of the past.” Words that in the mouth of a historian would appear trivial become particularly insightful when uttered by Gaspar Galáz, an astronomer working in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, a place that has gained international renown as a site for astronomic investigation due to its clear skies. This desert, the driest place in the world, also constitutes the site for the filming of Nostalgia de la Luz. Guzman uses Galáz’s remark and the desert to connect astronomy, archeology, and history as disciplines dealing with the past. The connection between astronomy and the study of the past becomes obvious when Galáz reminds us that the light being captured by the Chilean telescopes was emitted billions of years ago, but for Guzmán the implication runs deeper. He is striving to connect our present knowledge of the cosmos, of the Indigenous inhabitants of America, and of the Chilean nation. The concept that crosses all these “parallel lines,” as Guzmán would put it in an interview with the New York Times in 2011, is memory and its preservation.3

In spite of the overlap between these various approaches to the past, a certain uneasiness pervades Nostalgia de la Luz when comparing the significant resources invested in astronomy with Chilean society’s relative neglect of Chile’s history. The millions of dollars and massive international cooperation that is being mobilized in the construction of the sixty-six radiotelescopes that compose ALMA reveals for Guzmán an obsession with our billion-year-old past and the question of our origins as a species that stands in stark contrast to our disregard of memory and of the traumatic events that compose our immediate history.4 Several phrases throughout the documentary point toward this paradox: “We’ve hidden away our nearest past. We have never acknowledged that we marginalized our Indians,” says archaeologist Lautaro Núñez during an interview with Guzmán.5 Guzmán adds, referring to Pinochet’s Dictatorship (1973–90), how “this country [Chile] has not yet considered its past. It is held in the grasp of a coup d’état which seems to immobilize it.” They both point toward a tension between scientific and historical approaches to the past or, more precisely, between the importance given to “astronomic origin” and the marginal place of “historical memory.”

ALMA at Night (European Southern Observatory / Tafreshi (twanight.org), available in: http://www.eso.org/public/images/potw1238a/

The most telling of all, however, is the testimony of Violeta Berrios, a woman who, together with many other women, walks through the desert with a small shovel looking for the bodies of their loved ones, loved ones who were imprisoned, tortured, and killed by Pinochet’s dictatorship, and whose bodies were then hidden in an undetermined place in the Atacama Desert. The efforts of the bereaved symbolize the persistence of memory, of the traumatic image that won’t go away, however society tries to erase it. Berrios is conscious of this disregard, of Chile’s neglect for its memory. “We [the women of the desert] are a problem … for society, for justice, for everyone. We are Chile’s leprosy,” she claims, a statement that paralyzes the viewer with its brutal honesty and self-awareness. Yet she will not give up. Berrios knows that the asymmetries between origin and memory render all her efforts hopeless, but that does not stop her from openly presenting her wildest dreams to the public: “I wish the telescopes didn’t just look into the sky but could see through the earth,” she says. “We would sweep the desert with a telescope. Downwards. Then we would thank the stars for finding them.”

In the face of Violeta Berrio’s testimony, Guzmán’s description of the telescopes acquires a new meaning. “The ALMA telescope,” he explains with a voice that now appears ironic, “will be able to listen to the bodies whose light doesn’t reach the earth.” All the bodies? The question poses itself.


“So what are they looking for, those mighty telescopes in the north? They are searching, essentially, for our ancestors. To make the universe something more familiar[,] … to bring the universe closer. … It seems all this progress is the product of deep nostalgia, a desire to retrieve something we already knew. We knew them in a poetic sense, but we basically knew it.” With these words the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita answers Guzmán’s questions about the meaning of Selk’nam cosmology and art. The Selk’nam, a nomadic tribe of southern Chile, believes that after death people transform into stars, viewing the cosmos not as something distant and alien but close to home. This mythology is beautifully expressed in their ceremonial body paintings, through which they connect with their ancestors.

Selk’nam group with ceremonial body painting, photograph by Martin Gusinde (1923)
Still taken from Guzmán, El Botón de Nácar, minute: 31:55.

The Selk’nam example allows Guzmán to build continuity between Nostalgia de la Luz and El Botón de Nacar. In the latter film, however, Guzmán’s thesis about settler colonialism becomes more explicit as his associations between cosmological knowledge, Indigenous culture, and Chilean history become more radical. The documentary’s site is still Chile, but no longer the desert in the north but the cold islands of the south. The subject, however, is the same, as he makes clear when he sees Emma Malig’s representation of Chile: “In the schools there were no walls big enough for such a long country,” he points out sadly. “It was necessary to divide Chile into three parts, the north, the center, and the south, as if they were three different countries.”

Emma Malig’s representation of Chile. Still taken from Guzmán, El Botón de Nácar, minute: 22:16

The story presented by Guzmán is well-known among Chilean historians, but it is still impressive to hear. He tells that the southern islands of Chile used to be inhabited by several nomadic tribes. By the middle of the twentieth century, the Kawéskar, Yámanas, Aónikenk, and Selk’nam had almost disappeared, victims of the brutal genocide perpetrated by European and Chilean settlers (gold seekers, cattle farmers, and Catholic priests, all supported by the military) who began arriving in the area in the 1880s. Some of the Indigenous people died from diseases that the settlers brought with them. Others, mainly children, were confined to a Catholic mission in Dawson Island, where they were forced to abandon their beliefs, their clothes, and their whole culture. Those who were not relocated were killed by the so-called “Indian hunters.” The purpose of elimination was so explicit that, as Guzmán describes, “farmers paid one pound for a man’s testicle, one pound for a woman’s breast, ten shillings for a child’s ear.” The disturbing photographic record left by one of the settlers, the Romanian-Argentinian Julius Popper, bears witness to the consent of the state in this genocidal action.

“Soldiers shooting at Indigenous population and body of a selk’nam” Julius Popper, Libro del Genocidio Ona (1892)

Yet what explicitly connects this story of nineteenth-century “settling” to the violence of our present societies is the image of the button. Of two buttons, in fact. The first one was given to Jemmy Button, a Yámana, by the English captain Robert FitzRoy in 1830. In exchange for that button, so the story tells, Jemmy Button boarded the HMS Beagle and sailed to London. The second button was found in 2004 attached to a train rail at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Pinochet’s agents arrested and tortured the dictatorship’s political opponents, tied some of them to train rails and threw them from a helicopter into the sea, so the bodies would sink and never be found. “In exchange for a pearl button,” Guzmán relates, “Jemmy Button was robbed of his land, his freedom, his life. When he was returned to his island, Jemmy Button never retrieved his identity. He became an exiled in his own land. … Both buttons tell the same story. A story of extermination.”

Rail found in the Pacific Ocean, currently on exhibition in Bahía de Quinteros, Chile as part of “Monumento Rieles.”Still taken from Guzmán, El Botón de Nácar, minute: 01:11:01.

Extermination in the context of the Chilean dictatorship means more than the physical assassination of political opponents or their confinement in concentration camps in places like the Atacama Desert and Dawson Island (incidentally, the same island in which the Catholic missionaries confined the Selk’nam population). As in settler societies of the late nineteenth century, the ultimate objective was the appropriation of the victim community’s property, which in the case of Indigenous societies was mainly the land. In the context of a late twentieth-century urban society like the one Pinochet faced, the main object of appropriation was not the land but a source of financial profit. The expropriation was achieved through the privatization of pension funds and of major state companies—a process that increased the income of the richest among the Chilean population—and through the implementation of a neoliberal labor system that kept almost half the population below the poverty line.6

La Concertación, the political coalition that governed Chile between 1990 and 2010, has been generally criticized in recent years for failing to question the dictatorship’s neoliberal model, instead limiting itself to administering it during its twenty years in power.7 As a consequence, Pinochet’s economic model is still very much alive in critical sectors of Chilean society, such as pensions, education, and healthcare. Incarceration rates have grown explosively since 1990, achieving a record peak in 2011.8 In connecting Jemmy Button’s story with that of the dictatorship, Guzmán gives present-day Chileans a window into their nation’s past and a way to make sense of their own suffering. Current state practice is a consequence not only of such recent phenomena as world neoliberal hegemony but of the perpetuation of the settler colonial dynamics of elimination and dispossession that were first tested on Indigenous people in Chile’s south, before the model returned to the urban context.

This particular role of memory as a form of visibility, memory as a mechanism that makes explicit not only the past but the violence of our present lives, lies at the center of Guzmán’s work. As the director of the Harvard Film Archive, Haden Guest, puts it, “The way in which Guzmán understands that historical consciousness is elusive and impossible to fix is one of the most vital contributions he has made. … Like Claude Lanzmann he is interested not just in the past but the past in the present, how the past continues to live and shapes the present moment in ways we may not be aware of.”9 Only memory can help us cope with the present. It is the only means we have to understand it and resist its violence. As Guzmán summarizes in the very last phrase of Nostalgia de la Luz: “Those who have memory are able to live in the fragile present moment. Those who don’t, live nowhere.”


Juan I. Wilson is a PhD student in History at the University of Chicago and a lawyer trained at Universidad de Chile. His research focuses on Latin American intellectual history, state and nation building in Latin America during the nineteenth century, and the role played by legal thought and legal institutions in this process.

  1. Patricio Guzmán (dir.), Nostalgia de la luz, 2010 (Studio Icarus Films, Santiago, Chile: Atacama Productions, linker Filmproduktion, WDR, Cronomedia); Patricio Guzmán (dir), El Botón de Nácar, 2015 (Studio Kino Lorber, Santiago, Chile: Atacama Productions, Valdivia Film, Mediapro, France 3 Cinéma).
  2. Lorenzo Veracini, The Settler Colonial Present (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015),6.
  3. Larry Rohter, “Surveyor of a Desert Where the Past and the Present Coexist,” New York Times, Mar. 16, 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/17/movies/patricio-guzmans-nostalgia-for-the-light-to-open.html.
  4. The Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) is an international astronomy facility composed of “fifty-four 12-metre and twelve smaller 7-metre dish antennas, [which] work together as a single telescope.” It was “conceived as three separate projects in Europe, USA and Japan in the 1980s, and merged to one in the 1990s. Construction started in 2003. The total construction cost of ALMA is approximately US $ 1.4 billion.” See “ALMA Inauguration Heralds New Era of Discovery. Revolutionary Telescope Will Enable Unprecedented Views of the Cosmos,” European Southern Observatory, Organization Release, Mar. 13, 2013, https://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1312.
  5. Note, however, how even well-intentioned scholars whose names reveal clear Indigenous heritage, such as Lautaro Núñez, can fall into the linguistic trap of using possessive pronouns to refer to Indigenous people
  6. For the privatization of pension funds, see Alejandro Bonilla and Colin Guillón, “La privatización del régimen nacional de pensiones: el caso Chileno,” Revista Internacional del Trabajo 111, no. 2 (1992): 193–221. For the privatization of major state companies, see a recent work by the the National Journalism Prize winner María Olivia Mönkeberg, El saqueo de los grupos económicos al estado chileno (Santiago de Chile: DeBolsillo, 2015). For a summary of data on inequality and poverty during the period of the Chilean dictatorship, see Ricardo French-Davis, “La economía chilena en dictadura y en los gobiernos democráticos,” Facultad de Economía y Negocios, Universidad de Chile, Columnas de Opinión, Apr. 3, 2019, http://www.fen.uchile.cl/es/columnaopinion/ver/la-economia-chilena-en-dictadura-y-en-los-gobiernos-democraticos.
  7. For a summary of these criticisms, see Fernando Atria, Neoliberalismo con rostro humano (Santiago de Chile: Catalonia, 2013).
  8. For a work that makes explicit the connection between mass incarceration and ongoing settler colonial practices, see Kelly Lytle Hernández, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017). The relation between the perpetuation of neoliberal policies and incarceration rates in Chile is explained in Paul C. Hathazy, “(Re)shaping the Neoliberal Leviathans: The Politics of Penalty and Welfare in Argentina, Chile and Peru,” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 95 (2013): 5–25. Updated data on incarceration rates are taken from Javier Wilenmann, “Neoliberal Politics and Late Modernization in Chilean Penal Evolution,” draft paper presented at the CSLS Visiting Scholars Speakers Series, Center for the Study of Law and Society, University of California, Berkeley. The incarcerated population grew from nearly twenty thousand at the end of the dictatorship to nearly fifty-five thousand in 2011
  9. Quoted in Larry Rohter, “Surveyor of a Desert Where the Past and the Present Coexist,” New York Times, Mar. 16, 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/17/movies/patricio-guzmans-nostalgia-for-the-light-to-open.html.