We are all streams from one water.

A block of quartz three thousand years old is the opening image of Patricio Guzman’s The Pearl Button; trapped inside is a drop of water. It was found in Chile’s Atacama desert, the driest place on Earth. Guzman’s last film, Nostalgia for the Light, began there, too.

After aridity, water: whereas that film remained for the most part in that ‘condemned land’ where human remains are mummified and objects are frozen in time, water is the key to everything in The Pearl Button, and Guzman follows the water – ‘Chile’s longest border’ – two and a half thousand miles south to Western Patagonia where the mountains of the Andes sink into the water to re-emerge as thousands of islands.Like Nostalgia for the Light, the new film is a meditation on time, memory, history, and the horrors of Chile’s political heritage. This time, however, he moves from the brutality of the Pinochet regime further back to the era of colonialism and the near-extermination of the indigenous peoples of Patagonia. Both films are greatly enhanced by Katell Djian’s luminous cinematography.

Once again, in a film that is pure poetry, Guzman presents a narrative that binds astronomers’ revelations of the mysteries of the cosmos to individual memory and human history. In Nostalgia for the Light he told how astronomers discovered that in the clear air Atacama desert ‘they could touch the stars’, allowing us to read the secrets of the universe like a ‘vast open book of memory, page after page’. Their telescopes opened a window to the cosmos.

The Pearl Button quartz block
The quartz block containing a drop of water

In The Pearl Button, Guzman begins once again in the driest place on Earth. But now his concern is water: from here, using arrays of powerful telescopes, astronomers have discovered that water exists throughout the universe. There’s water in the planets, water vapour in certain nebulae, and ice has been found in other celestial bodies. On earth, and elsewhere, water is essential for life to exist. Since childhood, Guzman has been a keen amateur astronomer and in his narration he says:

As I watched the stars, I was drawn to the importance of water. It seems that water came from outer space, that life was brought to earth by the comets.

Guzman takes us to Patagonia, ‘an archipelago of rain’ where some distant relatives of his lived. Their home had a zinc roof and he recalls the noise of the raindrops, a sound that has reassured him, and has followed him all his life.

For these people, the stars were the spirits of their ancestors.
‘For these people, the stars were the spirits of their ancestors.’

There were Chileans who once belonged to the sea: the indigenous tribes of Patagonia, who arrived ten thousand years ago. They lived in communion with the cosmos and with water. Surrounded by water, they travelled by water and ate what the water supplied. They were water nomads who lived in clans that moved through the fjords, travelling from island to island.

They carved stones and painted their own bodies as starry skies as a tribute to their ancestors. For after death they believed they would become stars. Guzman turns to the Chilean poet, Raúl Zurita for an assessment of their culture’s meaning:

These people were complex and rich. Their drawings and the way they painted their bodies reveal an understanding of the cosmos. For these people, the stars were the spirits of their ancestors.

So what are they searching for, those mighty telescopes in the north? They are searching, essentially, for their ancestors, to make the universe more familiar. In one way or another, when the Indians saw the souls and spirits of their ancestors they somehow felt closer to the Universe. They knew their dead were there.

So what are the telescopes and the space probes looking for? To bring the universe closer. It seems all this progress is the product of a deep nostalgia, a desire to retrieve something, something we already knew, in a poetic sense, something we knew intuitively.

Photograph of a Kaweskar from Chile, around 1930, from 'The Pearl Button'
Photograph of a Kaweskar from Chile, around 1930, from ‘The Pearl Button’

In 1883, European settlers arrived – gold hunters, cattle farmers, soldiers
and Catholic missionaries. After centuries of living with the water and beneath the stars, the indigenous people saw their world collapse.

The missionaries resettled them far from their homes, took away their beliefs, their language and their canoes. The Indians were exposed to foreign diseases that wiped out a large number, while many others became prey for bounty hunters employed by cattle ranchers and mining companies. In the eyes of the European settlers they were regarded as savages.

The first peoples of Patagonia were virtually wiped out. Only twenty direct descendants now remain, each one holding onto their language and culture. In the film, Guzman speaks to elderly members of the indigenous tribes that once made their living from the southern seas, men and women who talk of a tradition almost entirely wiped out. In a moving sequence, Guzman asks them to translate Spanish phrases into their native tongue: seal, whale, paddle, child, mother, moon, star. In two cases they are wordless: their tongue had no words for god or police.

Jemmy Button man and gentleman
Jemmy Button: man and gentleman

It’s now that Guzman introduces the first of two buttons that weave together the two strands of his film. In 1830, Captain Robert FitzRoy, in command of the first expedition of the famous HMS Beagle came to Patagonia to map the coastline. Considering himself a humanist and the natives capable of being civilised, he returned to Britain with four whom he determined to educate and turn into Christian gentlemen. One of the four was Jemmy Button who agreed to go in exchange for a mother of pearl button.

One year later, Fitzroy returned Button and two other surviving Patagonians to their home. On this second voyage of the HMS Beagle he took with him a young naturalist, Charles Darwin.

Deposited back in his homeland, Jemmy Button took off his English clothes. He continued to speak half in English and half in his own language, but had lost his bearings and was never the same man again. It was the beginning of the end of the first peoples of Chile’s far south. FitzRoy’s maps opened the doors to thousands of settlers. For the next 150 years, white men governed brutally in a silent and forgotten land.

Salvador Allende: a screenshot from Guzman's classic film, The Battle of Chile
Salvador Allende: a screenshot from Guzman’s classic film, The Battle of Chile

Salvador Allende’s socialist government broke the silence. Allende began to give back to the first peoples the lands that had been seized from them. The freedom didn’t last for long, destroyed by the 1973 coup which Patricio Guzman documented in his monumental five-hour classic, The Battle of Chile.

The pearl button
The pearl button

Guzman now leads us inexorably towards the second pearl button as he explores the fate of those who were imprisoned, murdered and tortured under  the Pinochet regime. In Nostalgia for the Light his focus was on the fate of those who were tortured and disappeared in the arid wastes of the Atacama desert. This time it’s the fate of those who were tortured and murdered, their bodies then thrown into the sea by agents of the Pinochet regime.

The dictatorship lasted 16 years, maintaining 800 secret prisons. Ironically, Dawson Island, where hundreds of indigenous people had died in the Catholic missions, was turned into a concentration camp for Salvador Allende’s ministers and over 700 of his supporters.

In Chile, impunity accumulated over centuries. Dawson is just one chapter.

Guzman tells the shocking story of a teacher named Marta Ugarte, whose body was hauled from the sea long after she had disappeared into the concentration camps of the dictatorship. Her body revealed that she had died from being tortured repeatedly.  Then her body had been tied to a length of steel rail and placed in a sack before being thrown from a helicopter.

Guzman stages a detailed re-enactment of the regime’s practice of dumping bodies into the ocean. The sequence rehearses the method of wrapping the body, and the practice of placing a length of steel rail of at least 30 kilos on the chest of the victim to weigh the body down.

According to reports of judicial investigations, in November 1979 the Chilean Armed Forces tossed between 1,200 and 1,400 people into the ocean, dead or alive. They were assisted by many civilians. They hoped that the sea would keep the secret of their crimes.

After democracy had been restored, the Chilean government decided in 2004 on a programme to retrieve bodies from the sea. Just as people were seen in Nostalgia for the Light searching for the dead in the desert sand, so now Guzman shows us divers searching the sea bed for lost souls. One body was found, still attached to a length of steel rail: a pearl button was the only remnant of the executed detainee that remained. In his narration, Guzman says:

From Jemmy Button, in exchange for a pearl button, they took away his land, his freedom, his life. When he was returned to his island, Jemmy Button never retrieved his identity. He became exiled in his own land.

Both buttons tell the same story, a story of extermination. There are probably many other buttons in the ocean. In this detail lies everything, condensed, dense, like a black hole.

For Guzman, the discovery of the button is like finding a star in the night sky that is light from the distant past: the button leads us to a person, a shirt, a situation – perhaps to the infamous Villa Grimaldi itself (whose head was later convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to more than 300 years in prison) and all that happened there. Like the radio waves from a star, the button is a detail that grows and expands in waves that extend in all directions. It contains the history of Chile, and all events of the dictatorship. Two pearl buttons link two histories of systematic extermination, a century apart.

With The Pearl Button and its companion piece Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzman has created two masterpieces of cinema which stand as deeply personal, thoughtful and elegiac explorations of the infamies of Chile’s recent and more distant past. There may be moments when Guzman’s narration can sound a bit hippy-dippy, as when he concludes:

They say that water has memory. I believe it also has a voice. If we were to get very close to it, we’d be able to hear the voices of each of the Indians and the disappeared.

Not long ago, very far away, a Quasar was discovered, full of water vapour. It holds 120 million times more water than all of our seas. How many wandering souls might find refuge in this vast ocean that’s drifting in the void?

Yet there can be no doubt that these are powerful political films, mysterious and poetic, yet utterly focussed on questions of memory and justice.

The Pearl Button: clips and trailer

See also




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