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TIFF Dispatch #3: “The Pearl Button” Beautifully, Powerfully Gives Voice to the Disappeared

TIFF Dispatch #3: “The Pearl Button” Beautifully, Powerfully Gives Voice to the Disappeared September 14, 2015

One of the original Patagonian settlers, as seen in "The Pearl Button"
One of the original Patagonian settlers, as seen in “The Pearl Button”

“Impunity is a double murder.”  – Chilean poet Raul Zarita

Chilean director Patricio Guzman’s documentary is hands down the best film I’ve seen so far at TIFF this year.  It was also the toughest to watch.

As it should be, since The Pearl Button concerns itself with two groups of people who disappeared largely without judicial repercussions within his country’s borders, victims of the double murder described by Raul Zarita above.

These two groups are Chile’s Western Patagonian indigenous tribes and those deemed a threat to General Augusto Pinochet’s U.S.-backed dictatorship from 1973-1990.  With lyrical agility, director Patricio Guzman links their fates by way of water.  You’ll see how in a moment.

To begin chronologically, the Patagonians arrived at the southerly tip of Chile (not all that far from Antarctica) about 10,000 years ago.  A nomadic maritime people, their canoes were also their homes, building fires mid-vessel to keep themselves warm.

Their Stone Age style of existence was only disrupted in the early 1800s when a British vessel (The Beagle; you may have heard of it) charted their 1000+ kilometer coastline.  Over the following decades, now that it was navigable, cattlemen and missionaries moved into their territory.

The profit-makers saw the Patagonians as subhuman.  As white men’s diseases shrank their numbers, Indian hunters were simultaneously charged with slaughtering them.  With astonishing callousness, these hunters were paid per testicle, breast, or child’s ear they brought to their employers.

These tragic events unfurl powerfully by a mixture of black and white still photos and decades-old film of the Patagonians, often shown wearing their traditional paint or haunting ceremonial masks.  In addition, Guzman himself interviews several of the remaining Patagonians.

One of Guzman's interview subjects in "The Pearl Button"
One of Guzman’s interview subjects in “The Pearl Button”

In one beautiful segment, a now-wrinkled woman narrates in her own language a lengthy boat journey she took as a child, as the camera shows the water-level view as she might have seen it.  Another similarly aged man tells of traversing Cape Horn in a dugout with his father when he was twelve (an amazing feat – if my obsessive reading of Patrick O’Brian’s nautical novels taught me anything, it’s that the Cape Horn crossing was one of the most dangerous in the era before steam engines).

We also learn, incredibly, through these interviews that the Patagonians have no word in their language for “god” or “police.”  Tragically, we may see the total extinction of these unobtrusive people and their languages in our lifetime, since only 10-20 Patagonians still live today.

The horrors under Pinochet’s dictatorship are covered more briefly, further along in The Pearl Button.  Ironically, many of those tortured and ultimately murdered under the General’s orders were held on Dawson Island, the same locale where Patagonians clustered around a Catholic mission and caught the diseases that would kill them.

Whereas water was the home and sustainer for Patagonians, for many of Pinochet’s disappeared, it became a burial ground.  In an agonizing sequence, a Chilean journalist straightforwardly and with props reenacts the execution and preparation for deep sea interment of these political prisoners.

Grim stuff, yes?  What makes The Pearl Button bearable is Guzman’s grounding of his narrative in astronomical time.  Guzman shows us how a massive array of telescopes in Chile’s Atacama Desert is discovering water in quasars and other celestial formations.  It is from at least one such visitor that our planet was seeded with water, and it is to the stars that our bodily matter will one day return.  (Here, the Patagonians were a few steps ahead of us in their belief that they formed constellations after their terrestrial demise.)

During the Q&A after The Pearl Button’s screening, Guzman confirmed that this film is the second of a planned trilogy.  If you haven’t seen the first film, Nostalgia for the Light, I strongly recommend you track down this equally artful film.  This earlier work, instead of Chile’s water, focused on its desert land, here joining the telescopes, archeological and paleontological findings, and searches for the disappeared in this dry locale.

In both films, Guzman shows a strong attunement to nature in his eye and ear for beauty.  In The Pearl Button, we’re treated to sights and sounds like the multihued blues of near-Antarctic ice, the groan of glaciers, the patter of hail upon shoreline stones, and the creased faces of his Patagonian interviewees.

One of many water views in "The Pearl Button"
One of many water views in “The Pearl Button”

In some ways, Guzman reminds me of German-born filmmaker Werner Herzog.  Both share a willingness to keep their camera running even through silences during interviews, as well as a creative capacity to make odd yet plausible connections in their documentaries.

There are differences, too, of course.  Guzman lacks Herzog’s playful irony.  However, Guzman strikes me as a deeper polymath, unobtrusively displaying his poetic, activist, scientist, and anthropologist cred in his films.

During the Q&A, Guzman not only won my heart with his soft-spoken gentleness, but by reading off a list of books for recommended reading by his audience.  I plan to look up at least a couple of those titles, but even more, I look forward to seeing what natural element Guzman turns to next in completing his trilogy.

5 out of 5 stars

(Parents’ guide:  The Pearl Button is unrated.  Given its intense subject matter, I would recommend its viewing only by those 14 and older.)

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