Film of the week: The Pearl Button

A baptism of remembering: Patricio Guzmán’s wondrous essay on his country’s coastline contemplates water as an agent of life, freedom, memory, justice – and their opposites.

Maria Delgado
Updated:

from our April 2016 issue

A member of the Selk’nam tribe of Patagonia’s southern waterways, photographed in the 1930s by the German anthropologist Martin Gusinde

A member of the Selk’nam tribe of Patagonia’s southern waterways, photographed in the 1930s by the German anthropologist Martin Gusinde

The Atacama desert, protagonist of Patricio Guzmán’s dazzling Nostalgia for the Light (2010), also features as a supporting player in his new film, The Pearl Button: this time, the place renowned as the driest on earth is linked to Chile’s expansive 2,670-mile oceanic coastline. Images of the vast antennae of the Atacama observatory’s uber-telescope, looking out to the heavens like giant robotic sunflowers, are presented alongside shots of glaciers, rivers and seas, as Guzmán explores water’s role as a flowing intermediary force between the stars and human life. As with Nostalgia for the Light, the film is contemplative poetry, in which these images meld with Guzmán’s lyrical commentary to provide both a personal and political journey across his nation’s history and psyche.

Guzmán constantly links the skies to the seas. Overhead shots of Chile’s coastline position the film as one where the director looks down with a sense of perspective and depth – he describes the view of a huge labyrinth of intersecting waterways as “an archipelago of rain”. There are shots, too, of comets and stars, thrillingly captured from below – flashes of colour in the night sky. Also at ground level, the camera constantly observes water flowing; the sound of water – running, dripping, falling – functions (echoing the words of anthropologist Claudio Mercado) as a “source of music”, a soothing soundtrack to the action. The sound of the slowly crumbling glaciers of Patagonia – imposing crystalline structures shimmering in the light – serves too as a reminder of the ecological challenges of global warming.

A rendering of Jemmy Button, who was removed from Tierra del Fuego to Victorian London

A rendering of Jemmy Button, who was removed from Tierra del Fuego to Victorian London

This is, however, no simple nature documentary. Guzmán’s cutting links these striking shots of glaciers and other natural formations to the stones carved by the indigenous peoples who populated Chile’s coastal areas until the arrival of European colonisers in the 19th century. Black-and-white photographs and grainy footage point to a now eradicated way of life, in which the Kawésqar, Selk’nam, Aoniken, Hausch and Yámana navigated the country’s coasts and waterways. The dots and stripes painted on the bodies of the Selk’nam people are captured in frozen images that hark back to comets and stars. Theirs was a culture that believed in life after death: humans transformed into stars in a cosmology binding the skies and the seas. The Kawésqar water people, according to 19th-century records, were once a population of 8,000, with 300 canoes, but now only 20 direct descendants remain. Interviews with three of them, Cristina, Gabriela and Martín, testify to a life in which “we are barely allowed in the sea”. Martín poignantly demonstrates how to canoe, in a craft that is now kept on land; the irony is not lost on the viewer.

The Pearl Button is thus crucially a film about memory. Cristina, Gabriela and Martín, prompted to recall a few Kawésqar words, reveal that ‘police’ and ‘God’ don’t exist in that language. Ultimately, Guzmán links the search to make sense of our past with a need to understand the universe. Art becomes a mode of commenting on the past – this happens not merely through Guzmán’s own discourse but also in artist Emma Malig’s map of the country, laid out like a giant, never-ending beanstalk on crisp sky-blue paper, and Paz Errázuriz’s portraits of coastal communities. Guzmán’s film is framed as one of a series of interconnecting stories addressing the invisibility of this dwindling population.

Fuegian children coopted into an Italian-run nunnery

Fuegian children coopted into an Italian-run nunnery

These maritime tribes were largely eradicated within 50 years of the arrival of European settlers. Gruesome photographs show them being pursued as prey – body parts securing financial gain for the hunters. In the early 1970s, Salvador Allende’s social revolution generated a move to return land to these native populations, but Pinochet’s coup d’état obliterated any progressive initiatives. In his three-part epic The Battle of Chile (1975-79), Guzmán argued for the need to remember events erased by Pinochet’s ideological agenda. The Pearl Button follows this cinematic journey, inscribing the tales of the disappeared into its very fabric. The tale of Jemmy Button is a case in point. Exchanged in 1830 for a mother-of-pearl button – hence the name he was given – the indigenous teen was one of four Fuegians taken to England by Captain Robert FitzRoy to be ‘civilised’. Guzmán reframes this as a tale of barbarism, with the returning Button made into an exile in his own land.

At the film’s end, another pearl button appears, this one found on the remains of a body dumped at sea during the Pinochet era, linking Jemmy and others like him to the disappeared. The seas are shown to be cemeteries of the dead. Just as the Atacama desert in Nostalgia for the Light fossilised the bodies of the disappeared, so the sea similarly and eerily preserved the agonised face of Marta Ugarte, whose washed-up body was one of an estimated 1,200-1,400 thought to have been tossed into the ocean by Pinochet’s forces.

The pearl button found encrusted in one of the railings used to sink Pinochet’s victims at sea

The pearl button found encrusted in one of the railings used to sink Pinochet’s victims at sea

During the Pinochet regime, 800 secret detention centres policed by 3,500 civil servants oversaw a culture of extermination and silence. Dawson Island, the missionary base where hundreds of indigenous peoples died in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, became the site of one of the most notorious concentration camps, where 700 Allende supporters were imprisoned and tortured. A black-and-white photograph from the 1970s is recreated in colour as a moving image, as a mode of allowing those who were imprisoned there the opportunity to narrate their stories. Writer and journalist Javier Rebolledo forensically recreates the process of disposing of the bodies of the disappeared. Chile’s culture of impunity is thus mapped across contexts that habitually remain all too conveniently separated.

If, as the poet Raúl Zurita testifies, the process of returning the dead is about allowing the living to grieve, The Pearl Button is ultimately about cinema’s unique way of retelling the past, about a visual language that links Pinochet’s victims to the Yámana peoples through the image of a button. Water is ultimately the conduit that Guzmán uses to bind the different memories into a bold, poetic narrative that asks profound questions of humanity and indeed of cinema’s responsibilities to the wider world.

 

In the April 2016 issue of Sight & Sound

The drowned world

Turning his attention from the northern desert landscape he explored so vividly in Nostalgia for the Light to the remote archipelagos of Western Patagonia, the veteran Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán offers another dazzling poetic meditation on history, ethnography, culture and political violence in The Pearl Button. By Nick Bradshaw.

 

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Also recommended this week

High-Rise

Director Ben Wheatley  | UK 2015  |  On wide release

highrisefilm.co.uk  |  ► Trailer

Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel of class war and anarchy in a 1970s tower block. See the April 2016 issue of Sight & Sound for Nick James’s cover interview with Tom Hiddleston, Neil McGlone’s on-set interviews with the film’s cast and crew, Roger Luckhurst’s history of Ballard and cinema and Henry K. Miller’s review:

“Cars, costumes, decor and facial hair are all echt mid-1970s. Whereas the high-rise of the book… is riven by violent, quasi-social conflicts that seem to have their origin in the building’s design, in the film the revolt of the airline pilots of the lower floors against the tax consultants of the middle is tantamount to actual class war. The rolling power cuts and overflowing rubbish bins bring to mind the Three-Day Week and the Winter of Discontent, and one of the orgies characterising the building’s descent into social chaos evokes Bianca Jagger’s fabled entrance into Studio 54 on a white horse.”

 

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  • Sight & Sound: the April 2016 issue

    Sight & Sound: the April 2016 issue

    Tom Hiddleston and the cast and crew of High-Rise talk class and violence past and future – and the rise of cinema’s Ballardian worldview....

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