Astronomy

RIDM 2017 Review of documentary film Cielo

The documentary film Cielo takes us to Chile’s Atacama Desert where the stars shine bright and clear.

The documentary film Cielo is set in the Atacama Desert of Chile. I put Cielo on my “must-see list” after seeing extracts from the film at the press conference for Montreal’s RIDM film festival.

The film is full of absolutely stunning images of the desert, and night skies full of more stars than you could imagine. And the Milky Way! Just stunning! In time-lapse sequences, the heavens seem to be rotating. The occasional shooting star zips by.

The Atacama desert is one of the driest places on earth. That dryness, the desert’s high altitude, and the lack of air pollution and light pollution make it an excellent spot for scientific star gazing and there are several observatories there. There are traditional ones, with big domes and huge telescopes, along with the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array). That is a single telescope of revolutionary design, composed of 66 high precision antennas located on the Chajnantor plateau, 5,000 meters altitude in northern Chile.” Those antennas look a lot like satellite dishes. When they swivel in time-lapse photography they also look like a field full of disembodied ears. Very weird!

Canadian director Alison McAlpine takes us inside a traditional observatory as the dome opes and the telescope is moved into position (cue metallic noises); she talks to astronomers and to people who live in ramshackle dwellings in the desert. They share some local lore, banter about gravity, etc. Because the desert is so inhospitable, I wondered how they managed to survive there. How far do they have to travel for food, etc? One man is a miner, others are described as algae gatherers in the credits and press kit, while others are described as cowboys. I saw their animals so briefly I could not tell if they were goats, llamas or vicuña. From previous films and reading I did not think there would be anything for those animals to eat, but apparently there are some very scrubby grasses. And maybe these animals live in the edge of the desert?

There is additional astounding imagery of stars and galaxies that I thought was shot through telescopes, but the press kit revealed that most of that footage is really “organic effects” of the kind seen in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.

Now for some gentle criticism. Cielo is well worth seeing for the images, but I feel that director McAlpine’s narration does not do it any favours. It might be intrusive no matter what, but because  she is addressing the stars, rather than simply sharing them with us, I felt further removed from the film. Hearing her say “Now I can’t stop watching you, I’m trying to understand your crazy beauty,” felt weird, like eavesdropping, maybe.

Atacama Desert, astronomy, voice overs – those ingredients might remind you of Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia de la Luz (Nostalgia For the Light.) While Cielo is worth watching, it does not approach the level of that masterpiece. Guzman’s narration sounded like poetry, in Spanish and in translation, even when he was talking about the atrocities of the Pinochet era. His film juxtaposed the beauty of the stars, the mysteries of the universe with the evil of the dictatorship and the grief of the bereaved who were still searching the desert for the bodies of their murdered loved ones. You can buy or rent Nostalgia for the Light on iTunes (and elsewhere, I imagine). And you really should! Here is a link to the review of Nostalgia for the Light I wrote for the Montreal Gazette in 2011.

CIELO, directed by Alison McAlpine
Country : Quebec, Chile
Year : 2017
V.O : Spanish, English, French
Subtitles : English And French
Duration : 78 min
Cinematography : Benjamín Echazarreta
Editing : Andrea Chignoli
Production : Carmen Garcia, Paola Castillo, Alison McAlpine
Music : Philippe Lauzier

Cielo will be shown on Monday, Nov. 13 at 5:45 pm at
Cinéma du Parc 3 (the printed schedule says 6 p.m.)

Cielo is part of RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs until Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at RIDM.ca for more information.

(I found some interesting web sites while doing research for this review. I’ll add them later. Please come back to see them!

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RIDM 2015 Review: Star*Men

 

Director Alison Rose, second from right, and her astronomer friends take a break at the Rainbow Bridge National Monument in Utah.

Director Alison Rose, second from right, and her astronomer friends take a break at the Rainbow Bridge National Monument in Utah.

Majestic music, monumental landscapes, mighty telescopes, and millions and millions of stars and galaxies! Billions, actually, but I was enjoying the alliteration.

You will find those things and more in the documentary film Star*Men. It’s a real treat. In addition to the sound and images mentioned above, you get human interest stories with historical significance.

The 1957 launch of the Soviet space satellite Sputnik in 1957 caused serious alarm in the West. The other side in the Cold War had better technology – what might they do with it? There must have been some wounded pride, too, because Sputnik was right up there in the night sky for anyone to see.

The U.S. did not have enough experts of its own and recruited scientists from all over the world to help it compete in this “Space Race.” The “star men” of the film’s title are Roger Griffin, Donald Lynden-Bell, Wal Sargent and Nick Woolf, British astronomers who were hired to work at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. As they explain, this was wonderful in so many ways. At that time there was little work in the U.K. for people with degrees in astronomy. They could leave the class system and the U.K. weather behind for sunny skies and open roads.

Photo taken by Roger Griffin in 1960 show his fellow astronomers at a their U.S. campsite with a large English flag. After they noticed the American fondness for their flag, they decided to take lots of photos with their own.

Photo taken by Roger Griffin in 1960 show his fellow astronomers at a their U.S. campsite with a large English flag. After they noticed the American fondness for their flag, they decided to take lots of photos with their own.

All four made important discoveries in astronomy during their working lives. In time two returned to the U.K. and two found other jobs in the U.S. Beside explaining their accomplishments, director Alison Rose takes us along when the four have a reunion, 50 years after their arrival in California, that includes much fascinating talk and some very strenuous hiking, including a visit to the Rainbow Bridge National Monument in Utah. And they wear huge backpacks while doing it, too! The cinematography of Star*Men is exceptional – natural landscapes and the views of star galaxies and nebulae are stunning. The music is great, too. Director Alison Rose will attend the screening and answer questions afterwards.

The Very Large Array, an astronomicla radio observatory in New Mexico. Do they look like giant ears to you? (Malcolm Park photo from Star*Men web site.

The Very Large Array, an astronomical radio observatory in New Mexico. Do they look like giant ears to you? (Malcolm Park photo from Star*Men web site.

Star*Men
Directed by Alison Rose
Country: Canada
Year: 2015
Language : English
Runtime: 88 min
Production : Alison Rose
Cinematography : Daniel Grant
Editing: Dave Kazala
Sound: Ken Myhr, Daniel Pellerin, Peter Sawade
Contact: Alison Rose
aer@inigofilms.com
Star*Men, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, 6 p.m.
Cinémathèque Québécoise – Salle Claude-Jutra, 335 de Maisonneuve Blvd E.
RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs from Nov. 12-22, 2015. Visit the web site ridm.qc.ca for more information.