Writ in wa­ter

Pasatiempo - - MOVING IMAGES - — Jonathan Richards

THE PEARL BUT­TON, not rated, in Span­ish and Kawésqar with sub­ti­tles, The Screen, 4 chiles

A three-thou­sand-year-old block of quartz found in Chile’s Ata­cama Desert, “the dri­est place on Earth” ac­cord­ing to nar­ra­tor/film­maker Pa­tri­cio Guzmán, con­tains a drop of wa­ter. This sym­bol for the pres­ence of the source of life in a vast uni­verse is our en­try into Guzmán’s lyri­cal and wrench­ing es­say on the wa­tery beau­ties of his coun­try, with its thou­sands of miles of coast­line, its van­ish­ing in­dige­nous coastal tribes, and its other “dis­ap­peared”: the de­sa­pare­ci­dos who van­ished un­der Pinochet’s bru­tal dic­ta­tor­ship.

The Pearl But­ton is a com­pan­ion piece to Guzmán’s 2011 Nostal­gia for the Light, which em­ployed the arid Ata­cama to a sim­i­lar pur­pose, ex­plor­ing how its dry sands pre­serve mem­ory of history and tragedy and how its nod­ding ar­ray of ra­dio tele­scopes of­fers a gate­way to the uni­verse. Here his sub­ject is wa­ter: the wa­ters of the earth and the wa­ters of the uni­verse, where as­tronomers have found nu­mer­ous dis­tant sources of wa­ter and wa­ter va­por. And, specif­i­cally, the wa­ters of the southern tip of Chile, Patag­o­nia, where about 10,000 years ago the first in­hab­i­tants ar­rived by wa­ter and lived by, near, and on the wa­ter for num­ber­less gen­er­a­tions un­til Euro­pean set­tlers ar­rived and be­gan to sys­tem­at­i­cally ex­ter­mi­nate them, hunt­ing them and offering boun­ties for body parts.

The film’s ti­tle has a dou­ble sig­nif­i­cance. It refers to Jemmy But­ton, a young Tierra del Fuego abo­rig­ine sold in 1830 to a Bri­tish sea cap­tain for a pearl but­ton, taken to Eng­land, and “civ­i­lized.” And it refers to a grisly dis­cov­ery in the search for the re­mains of the thou­sands of vic­tims the Pinochet regime dumped into wa­tery graves off the coast of Chile.

Some may re­sist Guzmán’s mus­ings on the forces of in­ter­plan­e­tary re­la­tion­ships or his dreamy spec­u­la­tions on dis­tant plan­ets as a refuge for lost in­dige­nous wa­ter peo­ple, but the ex­quis­ite beauty of Katell Djian’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy, the ex­tra­or­di­nary ethno­graphic pho­to­graphs of a dis­ap­pear­ing peo­ple, the heartrend­ing rec­ol­lec­tions of a hand­ful of sur­viv­ing Kawésqar el­ders, and the reflections of a few con­tem­po­rary po­ets and oceanog­ra­phers and philoso­phers work to­gether to weave an en­chant­ing, ex­hil­a­rat­ing, and pro­foundly dis­turb­ing work of cin­e­matic poetry.

An old woman tells her story in her na­tive lan­guage. Then Guzmán asks her for Kawésqar trans­la­tions of a glos­sary of words. When he comes to “God,” she shakes her head. No, she says, we don’t have that. When he tries “po­lice,” she says the same.


All things both great and small: di­rec­tor Pa­tri­cio Guzmán

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