The Pearl Button  – A Profoundly Lyrical Visual Essay
The word ‘poetry’ might immediately bring to mind the tricky linguistic connotations or the ornate prose. Chilean documentary film-maker Patricio Guzman’s poetry in “The Pearl Button” (2015) is of entirely different kind. Its lyrical, dense imagery ascends to cosmos, weaving a contemplative look into the intergalactic element and at the same time, it descends to examine the minuscule wonders, like that of water drop trapped inside a block of quartz. Lying in between these two natural realms is Chile’s violent history and Guzman’s personal memory. On the outset, the blending of Guzman’s inquiry into the cruelty of mankind along with his meditative gaze at the stars and water may sound like an egregious mismatch, but this malleable, unscripted narrative flows like water whose forces of divinity bestows an unparalleled visual experience.
One of the observers of Native Americans declares “everything is water” and right from the start, ‘water’ is a recurring visual motif in Guzman’s poetry of beauty and brutality. If ‘water’ represents the scintillating gift of nature, then the ‘pearl button’, which is another recurring visual motif, indicates the ruthlessness of human kind. Chile flows like a gentle river, down the western edge of South America. It has the majestic Andes, the vast Pacific Ocean and a coastline that snakes through 4,000 miles. It is a country of extreme contradictions as the dry Atacama Desert and glacial Drake Passage face each other. But, what Mr. Guzman finds fascinating or haunting is the sparsely populated stretch in Chile, known as ‘Patagonia’, where there are string of islands and crystalline blue icebergs. Patagonia was also the home to age-old ‘water nomads’, whose way of life was crushed by Chile’s colonial history and political turbulence.
“The Pearl Button” opens with the image of a 3,000 year old water drop pinned inside a block of quartz and then elegantly cuts to the radio telescopes in the Atacama Desert, waltzing in unison to look up at the sky. That image slowly transforms to the ocean water, which glistens at night like the pearl and then the imagery slowly transposes to the satellite image of Earth and glowing stars seen from space. Such exquisite images subtly comments on the conditions and environment that created and flourished our species. Nevertheless, the documentary isn’t about concrete science or astrophysics, but a metaphysical reflection on the legacy of indigenous population, whose collective memory tears open the colonial period white man’s savagery.
Patricio Guzman’s placid voice-over neither aims to shake up the Chilean national guilt (as native tribes were nearly decimated in 1880s) nor provides a detailed historical analysis of the atrocities committed by military dictatorship in the 1970s. It is not the work of a provocateur, but of a poet & anthropologist, and so Guzman’s visuals re-examines the past with a hope to restore the submerged memories and truths. The Kaweskar also known as ‘Water Nomads’ inhabited the lands of Patagonia for tens of thousands of years. They had tiny canoes to move through unforgiving terrain and frosty waters of the Cape Horn. Their vibrant, austere lives that thrived near the ocean bodies were totally invaded by the European colonialists. In the name of civilization, these water people derived disease, alcoholism to give their tradition and memory.
Later, in the 1970s and 80s, Pinochet’s military dictatorship granted the mass execution of Chilean scholars, academics and civilians opposing the regiment. One of the particular methods of disposing the bodies involved the attachment of steel rails (weighing up to 30 kg) to the corpses and then dropped from helicopters into the Pacific Ocean. Between 1,200 and 1,400 people were said to be disposes by this gruesome method. Within all this historical, metaphysical and cosmic events, water remains as the active witness. Guzman’s visual language ponders over the way water has shaped the cosmos, our earth’s environment, and the creation of life and also eventually withholds the long-gestating, painful memory of human atrocities.
Guzman’s exploration of the past and present isn’t about detailing the injustice, but mostly concerned with the preservation of displaced memory and age-old customs. The way he austerely preserves such memory shines with energy of resistance, challenging the shortsighted, desperate attempts of past and present global superpowers. Along with poetic photography, the documentary is juxtaposed with profound interviews of the last surviving descendants of Kaweskar. Their cognition reminds us of the opening image of water drop inside the quartz. Just like that enduring 3,000 year old water drop, these native people have also endured the layered texture of time. Apart from the thematic symbols, “The Pearl Button” is riddled with excellent visual juxtapositions and transformations. For example, the historians may not have the right answer on why Patagonian tribes painted their bodies in a very unique manner, but the images of painted body is transposed to the image of glinting stars, elucidating the tribe’s belief in ‘turning into stars after death’.
One could complain that “Pearl Button” is just a fuzzy nostalgia that is devoid of balanced approach to identify issues. But, Guzman isn’t trying to rebut the rewritten or forgotten history of Chile. He has made aesthetically superior archival photographs of the personal, universal and cosmic phenomenon. He is stimulating our senses to gaze into the complex, incessantly intriguing flow of the past and present. While there is lot of tragedy and beauty here, one thing will stay with me (and I hope with you all too) for the longest time. It is the story of native tribesmen Jemmy Button, whose sad predicament has given the movie’s title. Upon hearing the lamenting narration of Jemmy Button’s story, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Jemmy Buttons’ of our society, who are all crushed by the soles of the powerful, in their senseless pursuit of wealth and fame. Aren’t we all Jemmy Button losing our soul and voices little by little to the allure of a materialist society?
“The Pearl Button” is a hypnotic, pensive documentary that laments for the ripped apart souls and celebrates the purest gifts of nature. It is a worthy companion piece to “The Act of Killing”, “The Missing Picture” and to the works of Chris Marker.