If you have ten quid to spend on a bottle of wine, you could do far worse than to invest in one from Chile. Has the BBFC finally succumbed to product placement? No chance! The thought was planted in my mind by a mysterious juxtaposition of Chile's Atacama Desert, the least humid place on earth, and Belfast City Centre...of which the same cannot exactly be said.
Those in the know will already have clocked that the reference to The Atacama is prompted by Patricio Guzman's haunting and thought provoking documentary, "Nostalgia for the Light". It opens with the creaking movements of an antique German telescope being coaxed into place, at a pace as leisurely as the beginning of "There Will Be Blood".But pretty soon you realise that Guzman is creating powerful metaphors for The Disappeared of Pinochet's regime, using light, time, the cosmos, the desert, sand, stardust, prisoners watching the stars, an architect measuring his prison camp by pacing it, and heartbreaking mothers, sisters and wives searching the desert with their hands for the bone fragments of their loved ones. The irony is that astronomy, and indeed other disciplines like archeology and architecture, although suppressed by Pinochet, are better known and understood than Chile's recent, traumatic past. These are the sciences of truth, but history in Chile is a science of covering up and oblivion.
For personal reasons, this has become linked in my mind with Belfast. I do not mean that the issues, politically, economically, culturally, are remotely comparable. The causes of the recent conflict in Northern Ireland derive from a divided community and sense of identity for which there is no ready equivalent in Chile. But Belfast has set off a nostalgia in me. I worked on the Peace Process for five years, in the early 1990s and again from 2004. Recently, I have been asked to write an essay about this latter period. I don't know when or whether it will see the light of day. But "Nostalgia for the Light" and nostalgia for Belfast have got me thinking about history, truth and reconciliation. And remembering. Negotiating in a tower block in Belfast with Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and their team is something you don't easily forget...especially when the meeting lasts for 14 hours and ends at four in the morning.
One twist of the master metaphor of astronomy in "Nostalgia for the Light" is where one of the interviewees wishes the powerful telescopes of the Atacama could be turned on the desert itself, onto its secrets of scattered bodies and bones which have become flakes of calcium. The same urge for truth has been powerful in Northern Ireland in the recent past, with the Inquiries into the events of Bloody Sunday and other highly charged and traumatic episodes, and the undiminished passion to clear up the "cold cases", establish what really happened, and bring some closure to the relatives of the victims, with their still searing grief.
And yet, although I can remember writing papers on truth and reconciliation processes in 2003 and 2004, the issue did not form part of the negotiations I was involved in in those years. I may be wrong, but my sense is that it was viewed by the talks participants as too unwieldy, and more likely to get in the way of, rather than promote, the "acts of completion" which we were seeking. Although I am not sure I agree, I even remember commentators who said the trick was not to address the causes of the conflict but to find ways around them.
However that may be, "Nostalgia for the Light" is a powerful and poetic stimulus to thought about these issues. And it is deeply moving. Knowing as I do the Huffington Post's interest in documentary film, I wanted to add my voice to those who have drawn attention to it. To use a word beloved of my Irish colleagues during the Peace Process, it is a film which "transcends" its origins, and can help each of us to reflect on our own nostalgia, darkness and light.