Director: Alison McAlpine
Runtime: 78 minutes
Cielo is in awe. Documentarian Alison McAlpine turns her camera to the night sky over the Atacama Desert in central Chile and captures what has captured her – the stars and the moon misting the sky with such radiant presence, you imagine you might breathe them in. She leaves her camera there gazing at the sky for long periods of time, allowing you to do exactly that – to breathe and meditate on the marvelous sky that reveals itself to those below each night.
McAlpine’s attention isn’t lost completely in the stars though. She is also deeply interested in the people who make their home in the Atacama Desert, whether they be ranchers, kelp-gatherers, astronomers, a lone miner—his brief vignette, which begins with a contemplation on our star-dust origins and dissolves into an image of him walking with a lantern strapped to his chest like an earth-bound, bobbing star is one of my favorites—or astrophysicists. When she interviews these people, she doesn’t ask them to explain the night sky scientifically. She asks them to share their emotional response to it, how it lives in their legends, and what it makes them wonder about the world they inhabit, humanity, the universe, and themselves.
We are used to “nature” documentaries educating us, and while we may awe at what we see in educational documentaries, that is a sort of by-product of the filmmakers’ true aim. Our awe is meant to be a step removed in those cases – we awe at the sophistication, interconnection, or power of the natural element (to name a few frequent foci of nature documentaries), but not at the thing itself for the mere fact of its existence. So, when McAlpine shies away from asking those kinds of questions, the documentary feels off somehow. The viewer might question why the night sky is so vibrant in the Atacama Desert, for example, and why there are so many telescopes and observatories there, but answering those kinds of questions are not McAlpine’s focus. She is enraptured by the sky, she believes her subjects are as well, and she wants us to be enraptured along with them.
Cielo creates space of the cinematic kind so that the viewer can create space inwardly to reckon with the vastness of outer space and all it contains, an immensity which we can only see with our naked eye in the night sky. And we can only see that when we are in a place like the Atacama Desert which is devoid of unnatural lights, unlike most places on earth. McAlpine explicitly states that being from a large city in Canada is what set her up to be overcome by the night sky in Chile. She made her film to try to share that awe-inspiring experience with the world. Take it in on as large of a screen as you can in as quiet a time as you can find, and desert all distractions while you watch. Try to be as much like the women and men in the film as you can and simply sit in quiet wonder of the majesty before you when you look up.
— Written by Elijah Davidson