Oct 19, 2015

Patricio Guzmán's The Pearl Button: In Theaters this Weekend

A still from "The Pearl Button" of the Humboldt Current, which marks an area of low salinity ocean that flows along the west coast of South America and that marks a unique ecosystem. (Courtesy of distributor, Kino Lorber Pictures).

If there were a poet laureate of Chile’s Atacama Desert, it would be documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán. In Nostalgia for the Light (2011), Guzmán probed that high, arid land, famous for its observatories, and its spectacular views of the Milky Way, for evidence of crimes that are the subject of all of his documentaries. They were committed during the sixteen years of dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime. In his latest documentary, The Pearl Button, the writer-director becomes the bard of oceans, and in his sublime narrative voice, ruminates on their depths as the repository for human history.

The Pearl Button is comprised of several storylines that arise from that quotidian object. One button represents the only piece of evidence in a murder case that will never be brought to trial. It was discovered off the Pacific coast of Chile, not far from the Atacama Trench, annealed to a railroad tie. These wooden ties weighed down the bodies of Pinochet-era victims dropped from helicopters. Guzmán re-enacts that chilling crime and imagines the body and mind of the “disappeared” person now flowing in oceanic memory, along with countless others who suffered the same fate. 

Writer-director Patricio Guzman on his epic voyage along Chile's Pacific coast during production of his sublime documentary, "The Pearl Button." (Courtesy of Kino Lorber Pictures.)
During production on The Pearl Button, the 74 year old writer-director embarked on a sea journey along Chile’s 2,600-mile coastline, mostly inaccessible by land or air. Along the way, he discovered another narrative thread: the story of Jemmy Button, an indigenous 19th-century man who was paid one pearl button to travel to England in order to be “civilized.” Button later returned to his coastal community, among many other nomadic aboriginal locations in what is now Southern Chile and its archipelago. Europeans eventually decimated the native peoples, although some escaped. Guzmán speaks to a few of their descendants, including the last Kawésqar speaker. Once ocean nomads, they are now prevented by the Chilean government from putting to sea in their traditional canoes.

Guzmán’s expedition, past mountains, verdant islands, and glaciers—beautifully photographed and skillfully edited—led him to wonder at the indifference of Chileans to their natural environment. His conclusion is that the “disappeared” are there, as is the history of colonization and genocide. Whether Guzmán is gazing at the Atacama Desert or the ocean, he sees the primacy of place in the act of remembering—and the ease with which his fellow Chileans forget their past. Then he turns to those for whom the past is present: The aboriginal people in The Pearl Button, Gabriela, Cristina, and Martin, and a Chilean musicologist, a painter, and a poet, all represent the last living memory of different but equally horrific events and, ironically, of life-giving oceans. The musicologist, for instance, striving to capture flowing, rippling, and surging waters, produces astonishing didgeridoo-like vocalizations, and Martin makes small, exquisite, built-to-scale canoes.

Guzmán survived imprisonment in Santiago’s infamous National Stadium after the 1973 coup d’etat that brought Pinochet to power. He says in The Pearl Button that he also escaped the ocean wave under which his beloved boyhood friend “disappeared.” That recollection suggests the voyage undertaken for the documentary represents a tenuous reconciliation with the past, or at least with the sea, despite the crimes that the filmmaker chronicles there. In the end, Guzmán concludes that from our bodies, to the sea, to a vaporous nebula with 120 million times the water in the Earth’s oceans, water is not just the common element of every living organism, it is what links humanity to the cosmos. Water is memory.

Maria Garcia, October 19, 2015 (Please respect copyright and credit any quotes taken from this review. Thank you.)