The Pearl Button, directed by Patricio Guzmán
Todos somos arroyos We are all streams
De una sola agua from one water
Raúl Zurita Raúl Zurita
Patricio Guzmán’s latest documentary focuses on two distinct yet related elements of Chile’s past, the history of its indigenous people and the victims of Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship – the desaparecidos –, movingly tied together by a pearl button. It is also, at its core, a deep and beautiful reflection of our relationship with water and nature.
The documentary opens with the slow and poetic examination of a single drop of water held within a block of quartz, and expands into an exploration of seemingly infinite lengths of space and time, from the remote planets, comets and stars of our universe, to the tapestry of Chile’s coastline where the Andes sink into the sea, forming what it calls “a timeless place, an archipelago of rain”. The Pearl Button is a marvel of contemplation and photography as it shows the countless variations of Chile’s streams, storms, waterfalls and sea. It makes us listen to the crackling of its ice, the beating sound of hail on its rocks and the prehistoric silence of its glaciers.
In doing so, it succeeds in being at once intimate and epic, as it focuses with equal ease on the minute and the infinite - and it makes these visions of nature singularly close and human, by relating them to Chile’s history. Patricio Guzmán first narrates the story of the country’s indigenous people and interviews some of their direct descendants, bringing their language, myths and philosophy back to life. This first part of the documentary suggests a deeper communion with nature than most humans enjoy today. The second part, which focuses on the desaparecidos, tells the story of a broken relationship, a story of extermination: political opponents tortured and killed, many of them tossed into a sea which becomes an anonymous cemetery. Guzmán’s work here is one of memory and defiance as he confronts Chile’s past and seeks to show what has been hidden and recover what has been stolen - the identity and humanity of the victims.
The Pearl Button impresses upon us what the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita expresses at the end of the documentary, that “when you watch the sea, the water, you’re watching all of humanity, (…) both marvellous and, in some ways, soaked with blood”. It makes us realise that we are not isolated from or alien to it – but that “all things converse with all things, water, rivers plants, reefs, deserts, stones, stars. It’s a long conversation, a mutual gaze”.
The Pearl Button calls upon its viewers to engage in this conversation and to hold the gaze with empathy and understanding, rather than destroy or turn their backs to it.