Saturday, April 23, 2016

192. Chilean director Patricio Guzmán’s spellbinding documentary feature film “El botón de nácar” (The Pearl Button) (2015): A powerful, poetic essay interlinking water, memory, buttons, and genocide in Chile’s history




























The Pearl Button is one of the most thought-provoking and visually stunning documentaries ever made. The incredible narration of the film, which deservedly won Patricio Guzmán the Silver Bear for the Best Screenplay and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2015 Berlin film festival, connects up anthropology, geography, history, meteorology and cosmology  relating to a single country—Chile. If one has not seen this movie, one would be aghast at the very scope of connecting such diverse subjects. The amazing thing about The Pearl Button is that the facts presented are correct and they do connect up as Guzmán presents it. In case you still do not buy the connections made by Guzmán, you will be enthralled by the magical cinematography of Katell Djian. And Katell Djian is immensely talented and reminds one of the abilities of cinematographer Ron Fricke’s contribution to Godfrey Reggio’s brilliant 1982 feature length documentary Koyaanisqatsi.


The magical cinematography of Katell Djian

The Pearl Button begins with the examination of a drop of water caught in a block of quartz some 3000 years ago. Early in the film, Guzmán states in his narration the theme of the film that follows: “Water is the essence of life and it remembers.” Now, that’s an odd statement but if you view this remarkable film up to its end, the Guzmán statement does fall into place.

It is indeed true that water on earth was a result of cosmic events and there is some evidence that humans might have evolved from aquatic life forms. The ancient natives of Chile were water nomads moving from one island to another along its 785,000 mile coastline (data according to The World Resources Institute, next only to Canada, USA, Russia, and Indonesia) on small canoe-like boats.
By the end of the film, Guzmán extends his argument “They say water has a memory. I believe it also has a voice.

Melting ice on the shores of southern Chile

Magical cinematography of water

The importance of water for Chile as a country is further explored with amazing facts in The Pearl Button. Chile has the driest desert in the world—the Atacama Desert. (This desert made of sterile soil receives less than 1.5 cm of rain per annum, compared to other American deserts such as the Death Valley that receives more than 25 cm of rain per annum.) Ironically not far from the desert is the deep Pacific Ocean. However,  the Atacama Desert was found to be ideal place to study the cosmos with radio telescopes at an internationally funded observatory facility known as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Intriguingly, Guzman points to evidence that the ancient natives of Chile had believed in life after death on earth in the cosmos and thus painted their bodies with dots and stripes to signify celestial bodies. His commentary then wonders how we are studying the cosmos while neglecting what lies in the depths of the Pacific. Of course, Guzmán reveals the most unnerving part only in the third part of the film—the Pacific Ocean’s “memory.”


A small segment of an artist's view of Chile's incredible shoreline,
breathtakingly captured by the film's director and cinematographer


The Pearl Button can be divided into three segments. The first is about the importance of water to Chile geographically and the cultural affinity of the natives of Chile in the past to the cosmos.  The mid-portion of the movie is devoted to how the natives were exploited by European settlers and missionaries including a historically real native called Jemmy Button, who for the price of a “Pearl Button” agreed to be taken to England and be transformed into a gentleman. Subsequently, he returned to Chile disillusioned, only to take off his western clothes and seek acceptance amongst his own kin. The third and final portion deals with the Pinochet regime that brutally crushed the democratically elected Allende government that had sought to give back the natives their pride and possessions. The Pinochet regime had dumped hundreds of its political opponents after torturing them in the Pacific Ocean tied to iron rails to avoid detection in the future. One such rail is retrieved with a button on the clothing of the tortured individual still intact. The oceans that gave life to people on the mainland had ironically become a cemetery during the Pinochet regime in the Seventies. The Pearl Button takes you though the full circle of the tragic history of Chile.

A button retrieved from the Pacific Ocean attached to the clothing of
a Pinochet regime opponent clinging to a rusted iron rail


The Pearl Button is not merely a film with amazing photography and an interesting narration.  It includes revealing interviews with the surving natives of Chile. It includes acted bits of Jimmy Button in England. Like Koyaanisqatsi, this work of Guzmán is a treat to watch. It informs and it entertains. The first part of the film The Pearl Button is exquisite, to say the least. The citation of the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival sums it all up: “Patricio Guzmán's documentary shows a moving history of the people of Patagonia and Chile reminding us that human suffering and injustice go beyond political and social systems. Using water not only as a symbolic tool but also as a natural element it puts the concrete story of the region's victims, including pre-colonial indigenous persons and those who opposed Pinochet's regime, into the vast perspective of humankind."

Old photograph of Chilean natives with bodies painted with stripes and dots:
 they believed in life after death among the stars

Chile’s Guzmán joins Germany’s Hans-Jurgen Syberberg and USA’s Geoffrey Reggio as one of the finest thought-provoking documentary filmmakers in the history of cinema. If Pinochet’s coup achieved one good thing, it was to gift the world the cinema of Raul Ruiz and Guzmán that made people all over the world to recall the horrors of the Pinochet regime and to learn from it.



P.S. The Pearl Button is one of the author’s top 10 films of 2015. The film won the Silver Bear for the Best Screenplay and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2015 Berlin film festival. It also won the “In Spirit of Freedom Award” at the Jerusalem Film Festival. Koyaanisqatsi is on the author’s top 100 films list.


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