Writ in water
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