An Interview below the Stars

It’s 11.59pm in San Lorenzo, deep in the heart of the Bolivian Amazon region. Here, electricity only works from 6pm until midnight, when the generators are turned off leaving the community in complete darkness.

Fernanda and I are in the middle of the village’s main street, which is also used as an airstrip for small aircrafts. It’s almost pitch black. Just one streetlight and a few windows light up the village. Our camera has been recording for five minutes, waiting to capture the exact moment when lights will be completely gone.

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Night sky observations during GalileoMobile BraBo expedition in Bolivia. Credit: Felipe Carreli / GalileoMobile

Near us, cows and horses sleep without giving a clue of what is happening between them. A teacher told us that to land on the village, planes have to fly over the road very low so they could scare the animals and then could land safely.

Suddenly, lights are gone. Darkness is followed by a profound silence. At that moment, without the roar of the generators we can hear different sound layers coming from the distant forest.

Listening to these noises reminds me of writer John Hull, who was completely blind since 1983. Throughout his life he kept an audio diary in which narrated his experiences. In one of the audios, he describes the importance that the sound of rain has for him. The sound of falling water makes up the environment: the rain fills, shapes and designs. He could hear the rain falling on the leaves, on the ground … All these different sounds made up his perception of space. Silence for him was suffocating …

As soon as the city lights are gone, the first stars appear. New moon and no clouds around: a perfect night to contemplate our Milky Way. The eyes will gradually adapt to darkness and brightest dots arise in the vast sky.

Completely astonished by the beauty of the night-sky, I hardly notice a small point of light moving in our direction. With a flashlight in one hand and his green laser in another, Manuel is approaching us with his camera around his neck. Despite his age, 64 years old, the late hours and the eight-hour trip over dirt roads, Manuel seems as willing to talk to us about the constellations as the children who earlier had observed Saturn and Jupiter for the first  time through a telescope.

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Archeoastronomer Manuel de la Torre points at the sky with his green laser. Credit: Felipe Carreli

It seems appropriate to interview an astronomer and talk about the constellations with a starry-sky as witness.

The idea emerged a few years ago after finding out for the first time about the GalileoMobile Project, a nonprofit initiative carried out by astronomers, educators and science communicators. The project was looking for someone who could document the astronomy activities that would be carried out in schools and communities that had no access to these kind of actions.

On that time, the five-week trip around northern Bolivia and northern Brazil still seemed an adventure. A lot has happened since then, but we finally managed to make that dream a reality in August 2014.

During the preparation of the script for the Light-Year documentary, we found that the year 2015 had been declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL 2015). We thought about how to address the topic of light on the documentary. It was then when I realized that an interview below the stars  would be fundamental for the documentary.

“That is the Milky Way,  that white stripe. From here to there!”, says Manuel. “So in this whole area you have clusters, galaxies and nebulae. And the interesting thing is that you never see two things alike. You cannot say that you saw the same thing yesterday! Not even there … Never! It’s always different. So that’s a nice thing about astronomy, we always have many things to see. ”

Manuel explains that he started to take astronomical pictures three years ago, when he bought his camera. He taught himself to capture still images of the universe in constant movement  that he admires so much.

I notice that his passion for astronomy led him to be passionate about  photography. I have done the opposite. My passion for cinema made me discover astronomy. Well, the common element between these two fields is obvious: light.

Light is essential both for astronomy and for cinema. We can see the images through light but is the border between image and non-image (the distance between frames) the one that produces the sensation of movement. This is caused by an illusion produced by an object seen by the human eye when remains in the retina for a split second after its perception. Thus, the images projected at a faster rate than 16 frames per second make the illusion of movement.  This phenomenon is called persistence of vision.

I have always been interested in films that seek to reflect on universal issues and that permeate science, arts and philosophy. Films that use sound and image to invite the viewer to create new interpretations.

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Credit: Felipe Carreli

The most famous of them may be Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris is another classic of science fiction that could be added to that list. Contact based on the novel by Carl Sagan and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity are more recent examples. I also really like the documentary Nostalgia de la Luz by Patricio Guzmán.

Some of them are old movies, but they never get old. Films that inspire me every time I watch them. Films made of light, about light and projected through light. They are films aimed to be seen, heard and sensed. To travel with them. They talk about time, about memory, about how time changes and modifies memories. Or was it the opposite?

Reading that sentence, it comes to mind the poem Ouvir Estrelas (Listen to the stars) by Olavo Bilac:

You will say now: “deranged friend!
What conversations do you have with them?
Does it make any sense what they say,
when they are with you? ”
And I will tell you:
“Love to know them!
For only those who love may have heard
Able to listen and to understand the stars.

I come back from my thoughts. Back in Manuel’s interview, I realize that the constellations have moved, but actually we are the ones that have moved. It’s almost 2am. While Manuel takes the last pictures of the day, I think about our long conversation. The light not only connects both our stories. Light is responsible for all of us.

I look at the sky and focus my eyes on a random star. Has this star already faded? And I wonder in silence if someone, far far away, would ask the same thing about our Sun when it will be already gone.


carrelitoFelipe Carrelli has a Bachelor Degree in Film Studies from the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) where he directed the documentaries Temporão (2011), Cercado (2010) World Cup in Reflection (2010), Wood Window (2009), and Aurhora (2009). He participated in the editing of feature-length film Delirios a Cinemaniaco (2012) and the documentary Stories of a Juruá (2011). The documentary Light-Year is the first feature film as a director.

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