There’s a moment in Patricio Guzmán’s masterful previous feature, 2010’s Nostalgia for the Light, when an astronomer describes the function of a powerful telescope used to examine the stars. Due to their distance from the earth, the light from each star takes millions of light years to reach us; each image recorded is one of a distant past, an embalmment of a moment in time. While astronomy in and of itself is one of the subjects of his newest film The Pearl Button as it was with Nostalgia,1 this central metaphor of the after-image of the past brought back to the present is key to Guzmán’s recent historical inquests into Chile’s history. Looking back on two of the country’s major traumas, namely the genocide of the Patagonian people and the crimes committed by the Pinochet regime against political dissidents, The Pearl Button traces the contours of Chilean history in the natural phenomena that has born witness to centuries of human misdeed and injustice. A work of immense scope and ambition, Guzmán’s film blends scientific observation with political history in a film that is equal parts poetry and vital historiography.
In an interview from 2012, Guzmán reflected on the lack of initiative taken by the major producers of discourse on history in Chile – that is, the state, mainstream press and the church – in confronting the country’s troubled past, particularly the years under the Pinochet regime. Dismissing the tokenistic gestures that have typified recent official responses to national trauma,2 the director insisted that the task of producing another history had fallen to small groups and individual agents: NGOs, “honest journalists and judges”, families of the victims, and, one might add, documentary filmmakers, whose role Guzmán recently described as creating the nation’s “photo album.”3 It is through these people that “[m]emory has begun to be recuperated” as he puts it, and The Pearl Button ought to be considered as a work of, and about, memory, continuing on from the path forged by Chris Marker in this documentary film tradition.4
Thus, the film responds on a fundamental level to the “elementary documentary impulse”, what Michael Renov calls “the will to preservation,” but here that desire to preserve takes on a particular political function. It is an intercession into existing history, an attempt to restore its polyphony by calling attention to marginalised or erased voices, in this case of the various indigenous people of Patagonia virtually wiped out by the genocidal policies of European colonial expansion and those either imprisoned or killed during the Pinochet regime. This act of recuperating voices is taken up in several forms in the film with conceptually different approaches. Sometimes it occurs directly, via speech: a scene in which the director asks indigenous people to translate words from Spanish into almost extinct indigenous dialects is exemplary, as is another when he asks a group of victims of the Pinochet camps to call out how long they had been interned. At other points, the concept is taken up more abstractly, as in the two incredibly affecting scenes in which torture methods are demonstrated through detailed recreations, recalling similar sequences in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. While recreations have been understandably maligned due to their association with shrill expository telefilms, both Guzmán and Oppenheimer have demonstrated their potency in forcing audiences to confront the shocks of the past.
What makes The Pearl Button such an interesting and unique film is the way that it frames this political polemic with the reflections on nature and astronomy. It’s a singular approach, philosophically speaking; attempting to join observation of scientific phenomena with human history, the former generally dealt with separately as another order of reality outside of the flow of events effected by humans. Where it was a focus on the desert that played off broader historical trends in Nostalgia for the Light, Guzmán takes water as his subject in The Pearl Button as a way in to reflections on both national history and more universal, humanistic questions. Examining Chile’s thousands of kilometres of coastline forming the system of inlets and estuaries that make up Western Patagonia, Guzmán reflects on the tragic genocide of the indigenous tribes that lived and prospered in these waterways for several millennia before being virtually wiped out by European colonisers. It’s in this same stretch of coastline that hundreds of political dissidents under the Pinochet regime met their end, thrown from helicopters flying over the sea after being tied to a rail to ensure that they would sink to the sea floor and not be found. More than engaging in a kind of stock standard, starry-eyed hippy-ism that “everything is connected (, man)”, I read these associations between nature and history as part of a humanism that runs through Guzmán’s recent work, establishing a kind of cosmic sense of responsibility for history’s crimes that must be accepted by all. While the film has been criticised for “overreaching” by drawing a connection between two disproportionate historical tragedies,5 these criticisms unfairly reduce Guzmán’s connections between events as one-to-one equivalencies rather than different iterations of the oppressor/oppressed relationship across time.
While I don’t think The Pearl Button is quite the masterpiece that is Nostalgia for the Light, lacking in some sequences the fluidity and subtlety of movement between ideas of the latter, it’s still a remarkable and ambitious piece of documentary filmmaking. The film is a fascinating addition to Guzmán’s exceptional body of work, another nuanced and moving rumination on history and memory from the master documentarian.
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