Sunday 15 July 2012

An Olympian feat: "Salute" and "Nostalgia for the Light" (ST 15/07/12)

Salute (PG) 90 mins ****
Nostalgia for the Light (12A) 93 mins ****

In 1968, that most incendiary of years, two competitors at the Mexico Olympiad made headlines and history. At the medal ceremony for the 200 metres, American athletes Tommie Smith (who’d won gold) and John Carlos (bronze) gave the Black Power salute, and were rewarded for their show of political consciousness with a lifetime ban from Olympic competition. Matt Norman’s documentary Salute revisits these events, highlighting the previously hidden story of silver medallist Peter Norman – the filmmaker’s uncle – who would bring Smith and Carlos’s message of defiance to a wider audience yet.

The three stories unfold in parallel, as if its subjects were still running in adjacent lanes. Smith and Carlos’s training encompassed racist coaches and segregated bathrooms, not far from fields where the Klan burned crosses. Norman was raised by Salvation Army officers in an Australia where the Government was removing lands and children from the Aboriginal population. Mexico, too, was burning as the Games opened, with the authorities using extreme force to quell student riots. This Olympiad was meant to shut out the world beyond the stadium; Smith and Carlos were having none of it.

It’s a straightforward yet resonant account, leavened with stirring track footage and Norman’s droll testimony: he jokingly wishes the black American athletes had made good on a threatened boycott, because that way he might have won. Smith and Carlos are tougher cookies: the respect they give Norman is hard-earned and deserved, for when it came to accepting the consequences of taking a stand, he was very much one of them. At a moment when London 2012 risks being appropriated for flag-waving distraction, Salute provides a welcome corrective: you marvel as a podium becomes a platform, a torch a beacon of enlightenment, and the Games a force for real change.

Astronomy and archaeology are rarely practiced side by side, but Patricio Guzmàn’s essay-film Nostalgia for the Light unites them in a quietly fascinating and profound study of Chile’s Atacama desert. Rich in mineral wonders – ask the 33 miners once trapped there – the Atacama also hosts an ultra-modern observatory; the area’s zero humidity facilitates excellent stargazing. Framed by this prehistoric terrain, the astronomers discuss the time gap that exists between themselves and the stars. Consider their words, and any sense that history is set in stone, rather than an ongoing concern, vanishes forever. It’s all still out there.

Atacama was also the site of one of Pinochet’s concentration camps, and with this fact, the film’s true project becomes apparent: to reveal what time may have obscured. Enter the women who dig, looking for trace elements of the disappeared; enter the former inmates, stamping out the perimeters of their cells. In taking the measure of his society, Guzmàn’s tone is inevitably sober, but his images have a grave and searching beauty about them. This is a film that actively encourages the viewer to look: up towards the furthest reaches of the cosmos, down into the depths of inhumanity. Wherever the eye travels, it seems there are always black holes.

Salute is in selected cinemas, and will be available on DVD from July 30; a longer version of this review can be read here. Nostalgia for the Light is in selected cinemas.

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