Chile's Atacama Desert is the driest place on the planet, not counting the poles; it's harsh, unforgiving, and home to sprawling mining operations crucial to countless international supply chains. It's a potent place, then, for many reasons, from which to speculate about our ecological and technological futures. Which is precisely what the LA-based speculative architect, designer, and filmmaker Joshua Ashish Dawson does in Loa's Promise.
So, for Terraform today, we're pleased to debut Dawson's film—which, as you'll see, is a narration-driven story paired with striking imagery produced by combining on-location footage of the ghost towns of Atacama with home-brewed CGI design. Watch the film above, read the text of the story below, and below that, learn more about the inspiration of the project from its creator. Enjoy. -the ed.
I hope these words stood firm against the relentless Atacama to find you, and I hope they found you well. The sun continues to parch the desert, and the mines buzz with activity like never before. Nitrate died while copper thrived, killing one town while building another.
Augusto Pinochet’s most inhumane act, of using the desolate mine of Chacabuco as a concentration camp against those who defied him, triggered a spatial caution. It made civilians fit every void of the nascent ghost towns with a new infrastructure: One needing no man to ever watch over.
To this day, people continue to thrust my children with memory banks like a form of taxidermy that slowly turns to a digital cancer. All that remain in these rusty ruins are the faint hum of our memories, silenced by the machines’ drive.
I still remember the group of people, gathered in the hospital corridor at Humberstone, waiting to catch a glimpse of you when you were born. “Ella es tan bella,” your mother said, with tears in her eyes, and beautiful you were indeed. It was a shame that years later, she died right next door to the room that she birthed you in. I’m sure she’s in a better place now, like they always say.
It seems like only yesterday when the sound of your shoes on the wooden corridor announced the arrival of the girl with pigtails and pinafore. Learning your poetry and numbers, reprimanded by Mr. Ramirez for the many paper planes you’d glide across the classroom. But he would praise you for your stubbornness, telling you that you would go far and do great things someday.
Do you recall your escapes, fueled by teenage angst? Those days you would defy the scorching sun and jump on a goods train to Baquedano? Your mother claimed you often found yourself at the heart of the desert because you loved being the center of attention. And besides… everyone knew your name there.
It is unfortunate that this land, once a thriving melting pot, is now a nerve center for this robotic scourge that channels the Atacama’s wind and sun to feed its uncontrollable and malignant growth. I write you this letter because I’m dying, Antonella. I am the reason for this tumultuous disease that my children suffer. You see, when your mother passed, you were strong enough to go on by yourself.
But my children still need me. They cannot survive without me.
I always thought I was the life of the desert, but they sucked me dry for their copper and nitrate. Man’s greed has exhausted me, and I have nothing left in me to give. The lives I once quenched slowly drift away to make room for this illness. When your family moved to Quillagua, I vowed to serve you, and when it was time for you to move away, I promised to cherish our memories.
My dear, I hope you can find it in you to forgive me, as I cannot keep that promise any longer. The death of me means the death of the land I brought life to.
My inability to quench the thirst of the oasis has caused this vile cancer to spread through their spirit. It replaces our memories with those of a distant land they call “data.”
The surviving few of Quillagua continue to hold on to my very last drop. They pay to ship in water every day, keeping me on life support for as long as they can. My dying wish is that you come visit while we can still recognize each other. Then, when I reunite with Valeria, I will tell her, from one mother to another, how remarkably proud she should be of you.
On Loa's Promise:
Joshua Dawson received his Master's in Advanced Architectural Studies at USC, and studied under the esteemed Hollywood production designer Alex McDowell (Minority Report). He says he was inspired to make Loa's Promise after coming into contact with the regional history of the Atacama.
"After reading about the oasis town of Quillagua in the Atacama Desert in Chile, where people were forced to leave their homes and lives behind because mining companies stole their water, I felt driven to make Loa’s Promise," he says. "A film that aims to raise awareness of the consequences of deregulated resource extraction in free-market economies like Chile—consequences that could soon affect much of the world—Loa’s Promise blends CGI with footage captured on location to illustrate that, while technological advancements can transform our world, it comes at a cost."
Here's how he describes the backdrop to Loa's Promise in detail:
Chile has had a tumultuous political and economic history. After dictator Augusto Pinochet’s reign ended in 1990, the country adopted a market-based allocation system for water, relinquishing state oversight and allowing corporations to take control. Over the years, thriving industries began to monopolize the resources in the mineral-rich Atacama Desert in order to fuel their economic expansion. In combination with excessive mining activity, this has led to drought and the contamination of watercourses in local communities, including in the Loa Province. Just as the nitrate and copper mining towns in the desert were abandoned post-mineral extraction, the oasis town of Quillagua, reliant on the depleted and polluted Loa River, now faces a similar fate…
Loa’s Promise envisions the outcome of this situation, presenting an alternate history and hypothetical future, where the desert’s abandoned nitrate towns have been retrofitted as data centers and digital mines, to efface troubled memories. Arid and abandoned, Chacabuco (formerly a concentration camp under Pinochet) and other ghost towns take on a new purpose, the quiet hum of technology drowning out the echoes of the past. By portraying the endangered town of Quillagua as threaded to a network of the region’s ghost towns, the film aims to raise awareness of the consequences of deregulated resource extraction in free-market economies like Chile—consequences that could soon affect much of the world.