Way Back When: Nostalgic Essays of Growing Up North

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I replied, "You're right. But I've got 38 years of experience so I'm capable of making something interesting out of it all. It's not going to be like something made by an adolescent or a first-time filmmaker! And time passed. We waited for five years! And in this time I developed the idea.

I write all the time anyway. There's almost 40 versions of the screenplay, but it's not a long screenplay anyway, 20 to 30 pages. But it was fascinating for me to enter into this world in which astronomy and archaeology have so much in common. So the delay was positive for the screenplay and the development of the idea but we were in a desperate situation because we we're thinking we've got to live, what are we going to do? Two friends — ordinary people — lent us money. Real friends, you know! Without them we wouldn't have been able to get started. In the end, we were in Cannes with the film, we won the European prize, we won almost five prizes in the US — heavyweight prizes, too!

And so I ask myself, how come these functionaries can get it so wrong? They're the 'experts', in inverted commas. They have a nice salary, nice offices and paid holidays, pensions. One of the ARTE guys said, "With all the action films around today and the thematic multiplicity of the film, it's not for cinema audiences. At what stage did you decide that Nostalgia was a film for the big screen and not for TV?

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It was something that appeared in the process of working on the film. All the time we thought of TV distribution because the usual source of documentary finding is TV. So we thought that this would continue, but no. I spoke to a lot of colleagues, Nicolas Philibert, Fred Wiseman, and all the documentarists who make work for the cinema are very preoccupied because they feel isolated.

North - Nostalgia Critic

I'm used to it because I've felt isolated for most I've my life! Everyone talks about a crisis but it's been like that for 30 years! It's a total crisis, but it's normal for documentary because it's a difficult form. But today there's a paradox because there are great directors with great ideas and it's TV who turns its back on us. That's something new. TV used to be close to us. Now it's easier for us in cinema than on TV. And while there's a lot of competition, with 20 fiction films released every week, there are documentaries that work. It's inexplicable.

I think in time it'll balance out. But to be honest, while we were working on the screenplay we weren't thinking about this divorce between TV and cinema, we were making a film. If we had the chance to show the film on TV, great.

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If the cinema's an option, all the better. We didn't refuse TV assistance a priori. The sea is a kind of planet within our planet, which preserves memory, which is interesting because water arrived from space; comets brought it. It was probable that life came from beyond the earth, which is fascinating.

It's a possibility, it's not proved scientifically, but many astrophysicists are thinking about the possibility that life could have come from somewhere beyond the earth. We're very close to proving this with planet sections. I think it's a magnificent subject to treat, the earth's memory. And because Chile has many huge coastlines I'll no doubt shoot it there. Would it be right to say that Nostalgia for the Light has opened a new approach in your work? It's something I wasn't conscious of because it's not a deviation away from my traditional subject. It's more of a renovation, or a renewal.

With each new cycle one should take on new things. That's my own desire, to constantly renew my approach. I enjoy that. But at the same time as you're heading off in a new direction with this film, it's clear that you're working with your childhood enthusiasm for astronomy. This was already visible in your film Mon Jules Verne. Was this the first step towards Nostalgia? Yes, that and another film, The Southern Cross, which is a film about religion and particularly popular religiosity in Latin America.

It's a sort of history of Latin America from the point of view of religion. I start with pre-Colombian myths and finish with Liberation theology. For example, Guatemala, which for me is the most religious of all the Latin American countries, is also the most Oriental. For me, Guatemala is the most Western part of Asia. It's completely baroque and inexplicable, Guatemalan culture!

I like that film because it's a description of ritual, which I don't explain. It's not a pedagogical film, but a mixture of history and religious reflection. In that film there's a germ of Nostalgia. I want to ask a question about the meeting with the first of the astronomers in Nostalgia, Gaspar Galaz. There are two turning points in the film. That's the first. The second is the meeting with Lautaro Nunes, the archaeologist, when he says that whereas astronomers look millions of years into the past, archeologists look back tens of thousands of years, but that it's the same thing.

And he says something else that's very important. He says to me, "Yes, Patricio, you're right. We've forgotten the dictatorship, the repression, and the Allende government, it's true. But it's worse than that. We've forgotten about the nitrate mines of the 19th century. Where are the histories of the miners in the Atacama desert which had over 80 mines at the time, and who's written that history?

Way back when : nostalgic essays of "growing up north"

And where are the Indians, both of the north and the south? All the indigenous people have disappeared in the same way they did in the conquest of the Far West. After the war with Peru and Bolivia in the 19th century, the Chilean government expelled all the people who lived there. It was a genocide.

In the south, it was the same thing, when all the indigenous people were exterminated over about 60 years. So what kind of invention is Chilean history? It's a story written by the historians of the Chilean aristocracy who lie systematically. The current student movement doesn't just want to improve education, they're also fired by other sources of indignation: poor education, poor health, poor history, poor memory, and a poor political class.

I think it's these things that unify the students and give them the initiative to change things. That's very positive. I was very happy with Lautaro because all at once he revealed the true depth of the amnesia. There's an interesting moment in your exchange with Lautaro Nunes where he seems to be awaiting a question from you on the dictatorship because he takes his cup of tea and smiles. I liked this moment because there's something honest about the direction, which acknowledges the bet at hand: is it possible to make a conceptual leap between the idea of deep history — the light that comes from space, the history buried beneath the desert — and your interest in the more recent political history of Chile?

It's very interesting how one goes about doing interviews; that's the key thing. I very much like long, long interviews — a whole day, and the day after if we can. And to give the space totally over to the person I'm talking to. That's to say, no limits. I said to Lautaro, "You set the boundaries. If you're tired, we'll wrap. I never have papers in my hands, I memorise my questions and my principal subjects and I'm always like that. My interest is totally focused on the other person. I was operating the camera for that interview as well, so it was just the two of us, in an agreeable ambiance, drinking tea and he was listening to tangos.

He's an aficionado of the tango. It's incredible, he has a collection of them and we were listening to old tangos, and for each one he'd recount its dramatic story of impossible love. It's comical to watch a learned archaeologist who listens to this popular music! And afterwards, we did the interview.

I think that kind of mutual trust works very well for interviewing. And the same goes for Gaspar. Very much so. It's curious, today many astronomers and astrophysicists are capable of talking to us, who know nothing of their subjects, with poetry and metaphors.

Filmmaker Interview

In the s, for example, we didn't know anything about these people and today they've emerged. They speak like writers, not astrophysicists, and Gaspar belongs to that group of men. My assistant director was so impressed by the astrophysicists that he signed up to study it at university. But Gaspar warned him that if you can't do a year's worth of algebra you wouldn't be able to do it. And after a year he gave up. It was too difficult. Can you talk about the interview with the young woman Valentina Rodriguez that ends the film? With Valentina, it was a different story. When I discovered that she was the daughter of disappeared parents and an astronomer herself I went to her house and she said, "I can't give you an interview.

That big easy loiter is, for me, the sound of America, whatever America is. We lived about half a mile from Durham station, and from my bedroom, at night I could hear the arhythmic thunder of the big yellow-nosed Deltic diesels, as they pulled their shabby carriages onto the Victorian viaduct that curves out of town, bound for London or Edinburgh, and sometimes blew their parsimonious horns — the British Rail minor third.

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Or suppose I am looking down our Boston street, in dead summer. A panic suddenly overtakes me, and I wonder: how did I get here? And then the moment passes, and ordinary life closes itself around what had seemed, for a moment, a desperate lack. Edward Said says that it is no surprise that exiles are often novelists, chess players, intellectuals. I watch my children grow up as Americans in the same way that I might read about, or create, fictional characters. They are not fictional, of course, but their Americanism can sometimes seem unreal to me.

But there is also that strange distance, the light veil of alienation thrown over everything. And then there is the same light veil thrown over everything when I go back to Britain. It became harder to do so, because the meaning of these things grew less and less personal. I know very little about modern daily life in London, or Edinburgh, or Durham. In America, I crave the English reality that has disappeared; childhood seems breathingly close. But the sense of masquerade persists: I gorge on nostalgia, on fondnesses that might have embarrassed me when I lived in Britain.

To hear a Geordie voice on an American news programme leaves me flushed with longing: the dance of that dialect, with its seasick Scandinavian pitch. And you shall have a fishy On a little dishy You shall have a fishy When the boat comes in. But I really disliked that song when I was a boy. I never had a very Northern accent. My father was born in London. Where are you from? How vivid all those neighbours are, in my mind! And how strange they were.

I think now that in the s I caught the fading comet-end of allowable eccentricity. There was Mrs Jolley, though she was in fact anything but, who walked with three canes, one for the left leg and two bound together with string for the right. He knew many languages, and pages of Dickens by heart, and sometimes we would hear him pacing up and down, reciting and laughing. In their opinion, postcolonial writing has lost its political bite and now fills its toothless face at the trough of global capitalism.

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The essay argued that World Literature should really be called Global Literature. Who could possibly approve of this complacent, festival-haunting, unit-shifting, prize-winning monster? In the end, a case was being made for well-written, vital, challenging literature, full of sharp local particularities, wherever it turns up in the world; and so there was inevitably something a bit random about the writers chosen for the preferred canon of Thorny Internationalists: Elena Ferrante, Kirill Medvedev, Samanth Subramanian, Juan Villoro.

It could no longer be confined to a single paradigm post-colonialism, internationalism, globalism, world literature. The jet engine has probably had a greater impact than the internet. What I have been describing, both in my own life and in the lives of others, is more like secular homelessness. It cannot claim the theological prestige of the transcendent. Perhaps it is not even homelessness; homelooseness with an admixture of loss might be the necessary hideous neologism: in which the ties that might bind one to Home have been loosened, perhaps happily, perhaps unhappily, perhaps permanently, perhaps only temporarily.

Clearly, this secular homelessness overlaps, at times, with the more established categories of emigration, exile and postcolonial movement. Just as clearly, it diverges from them at times. He came to Manchester, from Germany, in the mids, as a graduate student. He returned, briefly, to Switzerland, and then came back to England in , to take a lectureship at the University of East Anglia.

The pattern of his own emigration is one of secular homelessness or homelooseness. He had the economic freedom to return to West Germany; and once he was well known, in the mids, he could have worked almost anywhere he wanted to. Sebald was interested, however, not in his own wandering, but in an emigration and displacement closer to tragic or transcendental homelessness. Almost the opposite is true. And one of the subtleties involves his relationship, as a kind of emigrant, with his subjects. And Sebald himself? His own emigration would seem to play out in a minor key, by comparison.

Officially, he could return to his homeland whenever he wanted. But perhaps he had decided, for political reasons, that he could never go home again, could never return to a country whose unfinished postwar business had so disgusted him in the s. Sebald is a ghostly presence in The Emigrants. We are offered only glimpses of the German academic in England.

Yet in another way, the author is strongly present, felt as a steady insistence in regulated hysteria. Who is this apparently well-established professor, so obsessed with the lives of his subjects that he crosses Europe or the Atlantic to interview their relatives, ransack their archives, frown over their photograph albums, and follow their journeys? On one of these visits, Clara being away in town, Dr Selwyn and I had a long talk prompted by his asking whether I was ever homesick. I could not think of any adequate reply, but Dr Selwyn, after a pause for thought, confessed no other word will do that in recent years he had been beset by homesickness more and more.

We hear about the horse ride to the station, the train journey to Riga, the ship from Riga, and the arrival in a broad river estuary:. All the emigrants had gathered on deck and were waiting for the Statue of Liberty to appear out of the drifting mist, since everyone of them had booked a passage to Americum, as we called it. When we disembarked we were still in no doubt whatsoever that beneath our feet was the soil of the New World, of the Promised City of New York.

But in fact, as we learned some time later to our dismay the ship having long since cast off again , we had gone ashore in London. Sebald seems to know the difference between homesickness and homelessness. If there is anguish, there is also discretion: how could my loss adequately compare with yours? Where exile is often marked by the absolutism of the separation, secular homelessness is marked by a certain provisionality, a structure of departure and return that may not end.

This is a powerful motif in the work of Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian-American writer who came to the States from Sarajevo, in , only to discover that the siege of his hometown prohibited his return. Once the Bosnian war was over, Hemon could, presumably, have returned to his native city. What had not been a choice became one; he decided to make himself into an American writer. Like Hemon, Pronek is from Sarajevo, is trapped by the war, and stays in America.

He finds the United States a bewildering, alienating place, full of vulgarity and ignorance. When, near the end of the story, he returns to Sarajevo, the reader expects him to stay. He did not want to fly to Chicago. He imagined walking from Vienna to the Atlantic Ocean, and then hopping on a slow transatlantic steamer. It would take a month to get across the ocean, and he would be on the sea, land and borders nowhere to be found.

Then he would see the Statue of Liberty and walk slowly to Chicago, stopping wherever he wished, talking to people, telling them stories about far-off lands, where people ate honey and pickles, where no one put ice in the water, where pigeons nested in pantries.

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And at the same time, he is making a new home in America. Or not quite: for he will stay in America, but will, it seems, never rid himself of the idea that putting ice in the water is a superfluity. Exile is acute, massive, transformative, but secular homelessness, because it moves along its axis of departure and return, can be banal, welcome, necessary, continuous. There is the movement of the provincial to the metropolis, or the journey out of one social class into another. Secular homelessness, not the singular extremity of the exile or the chosenness of biblical diaspora, might be the inevitable ordinary state.

Secular homelessness is not just what will always occur in Eden, but what should occur, again and again.