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!

RIDM 2015: My suggestions for Sunday, Nov. 22, the last day of this year’s festival

A scene from the Mexican documentary Llevate mis amores (All of Me), one of many films being shown at RIDM, Montreal's documentary film festival.
A scene from the Mexican documentary Llevate mis amores (All of Me), one of many films being shown at RIDM, Montreal’s documentary film festival.

Before I go to bed tonight, I hope to write proper reviews of these films that I’m suggesting to you, but for now, I’ll just write a short description to get something online as soon as possible.

Click on the underlined name of a film to be taken to the synopsis on the RIDM web site.

Oncle Bernard – L’anti-Leçon d’économie
Words of wisdom from the late economist Bernard Maris. He was one of the people killed at the offices of Charlie Hebdo earlier this year.
Oncle Bernard – L’anti-leçon d’économie, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, 7 p.m., Excentris (Salle Cassavetes)

The next two films are on at the same time. What a shame, and what a quandary, because I think they’re both wonderful. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest Llévate mis amores (All of Me), directed by Arturo González Villaseñor, as a first choice because there is no guarantee that it will come back to Montreal again, though I truly hope that it does. This is a film about people in Mexico, mostly women, who do a lot to help others, even though they have very little themselves. Every day they prepare food and water for migrants who are making their way north to the U.S. by train. RIDM says it is “A wonderful human adventure,” but that’s really an understatement. It’s inspiring! Seriously.

This film was sold out on Saturday, so if you want to see it, consider buying your tickets online to avoid disappointment. I almost missed it myself.  I thought that Saturday’s screening was the second, and last one. I am so glad that it isn’t, so that I can suggest it to you. Director Arturo González Villaseñor will be at the screening to answer questions after the film.

Llévate mis amores (All of Me), Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, 9:15 p.m., Excentris (Salle Cassavetes)
Another film that starts at 9:15 p.m. is Le Bouton de nacre (El botón de nácar in Spanish, The Pearl Button in English), directed by Patricio Guzmán. It’s quite wonderful too, but given Guzman’s fame, it is more likely to return to Montreal screens. (Guzmán directed Nostalgia For The Light, one of my very favourite documentaries, along with Salvador Allende, The Pinochet Case, The Battle of Chile, and others.)

Le Bouton de nacre is about water, the universe, Chile’s native peoples and the disappeared of the Pinochet years. It is full of beautiful images and sounds and also contains tales of incredible horror. Some of those tales are quite recent, while others are much older.
Le Bouton de nacre, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, 9:15 p.m., Cinéma du Parc 2

I have seen the three films above, and recommend them wholeheartedly.

In Police Academie (Cop Class) director Mélissa Beaudet follows “three very different cadets during their final year of training.” It sounds interesting, and it has received good reviews, but it starts at 9 p.m., which puts it in conflict with Llévate mis amores (All of Me) and Le Bouton de nacre (El botón de nácar). Police Academie will be shown at Excentris starting on Nov. 27, and it will be on TV (ICI RDI) on Jan. 16, 2016.
Police Academie (Cop Class), Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, 9 p.m., Cinéma Du Parc 1
RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs from Nov. 12-22, 2015. Visit the web site ridm.qc.ca for more information.