Stargazing and Ethnic Cleansing in Tierra del Fuego: The Great Patricio Guzmán’s Cosmic The Pearl Button

pearl button-guzman

The Pearl Button
Directed by Patricio Guzmán
Opens October 23 at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

Early on in Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button, a nonfiction feature that’s short in duration but grand in scale, the camera orbits around a museum-piece slab of quartz from Chile’s Atacama Desert. The mineral might have been discovered in the driest place on earth, one that astronomers prize for its crystal-clear skies, but a single water droplet can nonetheless be seen trapped inside. What Guzmán’s setting up here is a beautifully elemental meditation that revolves around his native stretch of the Southern Cone. He moves from the part of the Pacific that washes up against Patagonia to the atomized oceans of nebulae light-years away. Not as vaporous as it first appears, the film gradually zeroes in on a particular national history of man’s inhumanity to man: the silence that has long surrounded the vanishing of the tribes of Tierra del Fuego, who relied on the sea for sustenance, as well as General Augusto Pinochet’s later purging of political enemies during his dictatorship, some of whom were “disappeared” into the ocean.

The previous film by the 74-year-old Guzmán—best known for the vérité Battle of Chile (1975–79), which observed the tensions that led to Pinochet’s coup against the leftist government of Salvador Allende—took a similarly searching approach. 2010’s Nostalgia for the Light artfully contrasted the skyward orientation of the scientists of Atacama with the earthward gaze of those scouring the very same desert for the bones of loved ones; the filmmaker’s melancholically awe-struck narration served to connect all the far-flung dots. Companion piece The Pearl Button likewise wraps such first-person association around numerous interviews—with esteemed Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, with the remaining native speakers of Kawésqar and Selk’nam, and with a onetime helicopter mechanic who bore witness to the military’s dumping of bodies. Meanwhile, Guzmán presents loosely related natural phenomena of various orders. We linger over the beryl-blue serration of a glacier’s edge, outer-space renderings of milky clusters of light, a section of railway track that’s been encrusted by barnacles after decades spent underwater.

The Pearl Button includes a number of abstracted evocations of times now past—for instance, a canoe paddle stirring the sea into a ripple, superimposed over an image of today’s indifferently undulating ocean. But the fullest-scale reenactment here involves those pieces of iron track, which were used by Pinochet’s men to ensure that burlap-sacked bodies dropped from the air indeed sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Guzmán and a few consultants demonstrate every stage of this method of disposal using a life-size dummy. Such dramatizations make The Pearl Button a less delicately mournful, and more plainly confrontational, experience than the more breathtaking Nostalgia, but the new film is undeniably an achievement of its own. Guzmán’s last two features—in which his camera becomes a sort of satellite, gracefully suspended in the firmament while surveying a particular patch of earth down below—have launched him into the stratosphere of the great moving-image essayists.

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