Berlin 2015: ‘The Pearl Button’ review


Arriving at the Berlinale with another probing examination into Chile’s harrowing past, The Pearl Button (2015) makes for a fitting diptych to Patricio Guzmán’s previous documentary, Nostalgia for the Light (2012). Whilst the focus may have shifted, Guzmán continues to gaze at the stars in search of answers, yet uses water as his motif for his latest inquiry into the cruelty of mankind. Running from the arid Atacama Desert to the glacial southern point of Drake Passage, Chile’s lengthiest border is the Pacific Ocean. It’s home to over a thousand individual islands and some of Chile’s most picturesque scenery. It’s also plagued by the lost voices of the Kawésqar, the indigenous water nomads of Western Patagonia.

The Kawésqar were savagely hunted by European colonials and later pushed to near-extinction during General Pinochet’s violent persecution of political dissidents. It’s said that mankind knows more about the cosmos that it does about the sea – a notion that goes some way to understand why Pinochet’s government would believe the Pacific Ocean would become a safe-house for it’s most repugnant of secrets. However, its not the appalling news that Pinochet dumped somewhere between 12,000 and 14,000 bodies to a watery grave that led Guzmán to the connection between his country’s traumatic past and the sea, but rather the beliefs of the Kawésqar who formally populated the archipelagos of Patagonia. They believed the water was a living entity and that in death they would live amongst the stars.

By combining insightful interviews with poetic photography and metaphysical contemplation, Guzmán’s exploration of memory endeavours to tear open the sarcophagus of national guilt and lay out the putrid evidence of this overlooked period of mass genocide. Inhabiting the space between fact and fiction, where repressed memories often seek refuge, The Pearl Button weaves a fascinating, yet traumatic route through Chile’s recent history. An existential mediation on the inherent horrors of mankind, Guzmán successfully finds parity between the autonomous force of the sea and the more immediate tragedy caused by human violence. The film’s greatest achievement is the cohesive and profoundly engaging manner in which it presents its theorem, fashioning a fascinating dialectic between nature and humanity that separates us from the cold, unimaginable facts and allows us to experience the horror form a disturbingly intimate perspective. At one point, Guzmán even recreates the process performed on the bodies of political dissidents before they were dumped in the sea.

The clinical nature of this reconstruction does little to temper the horror it evokes. The intensity of the scrutiny in Guzmán’s approach teaches us how to traverse the blinkers of the history books and be merciless toward the past in what surmounts as an attempt to remain humane in the face of the most awful truths about our species’ capacity for evil. It doesn’t always coalesce and some of Guzmán’s spiritual diversions feel a little strained. Though a stronger emphasis on the details of this relatively undocumented period of history would surely leave audiences more informed rather than bored, this is a film that justly evokes a righteous sense of indignation. Whilst the water may not recollect the travesties it has washed away and eroded, The Pearl Button certainly stands to resurrect those voices ripped from the world by the cruel hand of humanity.

The 65th Berlin Film Festival takes place from 5-15 February 2015. For more of our coverage, simply follow this link.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble