There’s a metamorphosis during Patricio Guzmán’s breathtaking documentary The Pearl Button that somewhat echoes the one that has occurred in his recent career. He started out in cinema vérité he tells me when we meet to discuss his latest film in London, “almost photojournalism” he says via a translator. With 2010’s Nostalgia for the Light and this new one he has embraced a more ephemeral and philosophical type of filmmaking that seems completely different on the surface before emerging as a new angle from which to discover the same truths as ever. In The Pearl Button, Guzmán seems to veer suddenly from slowly diminishing aboriginal communities to the ‘disappearances’ of the Pinochet era only to bring them together in startling and poignant fashion.
Nostalgia for the Light was also concerned with searching for those lost in the country’s bloody near-history. Guzmán aligned his own passion for the stars with the tumultuous political events by exploring the commonalities in the work of astronomers peering into space to find our past in the telescopes of the Atacama desert, and groups of women sifting through the surrounding sand in the hope of finding evidence of loved ones. “I was in the north of Chile finishing Nostalgia for the Light and I asked myself if the same thing is happening in another part of Chile where the native peoples had died and where there were also stories of disappeared people,” he tells me. “So I started to read and I discovered that there were five tribes that were eliminated by white man, who came at the beginning of the 20th century and they just killed them all. They were more or less 1,000 people and that whole area is now deserted in terms of human population.” Having never visited Patagonia, he decided to go and visit for himself and was awestruck by what he saw, there.
“The unbelievable landscape is quite extraordinary – it’s like the Earth forty or fifty million years ago. There’s nobody there – it’s enormous and nature has an incredible potency which is amazing, it really surprises you. We were in a boat that’s thirteen meters long in these channels and every hour that goes by, you encounter a different spectacle. Icebergs float past the boat that have incredible unique shapes; the trees in the forests completely lean inwards as if somebody had combed them flat. To sail around those channels and fjords is a real pleasure.” The vistas of southern Chile provide a wealth of stunning footage for the film, but it was back in Santiago that the links between the massacres of the aboriginal people and those of the Pinochet regime were formed in his mind. “In the times of Pinochet there was a prison where they would take the prisoners in the helicopters and they would throw them into the sea. It’s estimated about 2,000 people. Immediately I started to realise that the two stories had a meeting point – the sea – and that’s when I started to work on that idea.”
The original settlers in Chile were a seafaring people and their destruction ultimately came from the waves as well. Back in Nostalgia for the Light, a section of Guzmán’s voiceover talked about his long-held belief that life had originated in the earth or in the depths of the sea, but that he was now convinced it came from beyond the stars. I wondered, for a man so clearly engaged with the deeper meanings of the physical world, whether his feelings about the sea had changed after their strong link to death in The Pearl Button. Patricio said that his thoughts about death and the sea were deeply shaped by his work on the film and in his narration he speaks about how, despite an enormous coastline, Chileans turn their backs from the sea – much as they turn away from the atrocities of their history. “I didn’t know how they had killed the tribes in the south. I knew that they had died, but I had no idea how violent it was. There are six or seven left of one race that was 1,500 strong. It’s terrible.”
During the course of The Pearl Button, Guzmán goes in search of some of the remaining members of the different tribes. “When you get to Patagonia, they all speak Spanish. I was asking ‘what about the original languages?’ and they all said I had to go to a specific place. So I found three people that still remember a little of their original tongue. There were four different languages originally and the three people in the film speak different dialects and there are very very few more. Three or four more people. The rest are all dead, or they’ve forgotten it. It’s the destruction of a culture.” The result is a feeling of some responsibility to help to preserve some elements of that culture and Guzmán is keen to highlight the great work being done by ethane-linguist Oscar Aguilera in creating a full Spanish-Kaweskar dictionary. However, trying to reach Chilean people about such subjects is difficult.
“In France this week,” explains Renata Sachse, Guzmán’s wife and producer, “they calculated around 86,000 admissions which is a pretty phenomenal figure for a documentary. In Chile they’ve had 15,000.” Guzmán explains that all cinemas in Chile are multiplexes, owned by North American companies, so for every twelve screens of US films, there’s 1 dedicated to foreign and Chilean cinema. “The last film by [Pablo] Larrain – The Club – had a similar number of viewers. It depends on the subject.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the more upsetting elements of their shared history are not enticing for Chilean audiences. “It’s a very difficult sell” says Sachse. But are they ever tempted to be more conventional and tackle less difficult subject matter? “Absolutely not,” Guzmán thankfully beams. “I think that metaphors are useful,” he explains about the more unusual aspects of his current style.
“It’s useful to speak indirectly of something through the landscape, or through some ambiguous personalities like the astronomer, archaeologist, or young woman in Nostalgia for the Light. They’re not speaking of something absolutely concrete, they’re transmitting a feeling, and I like that. It tells you more than if a person is being very specific. It’s like the man that appears in The Pearl Button and he sings. When he sings, even if he says nothing, he says it all. I find that very important. Some spectators get disorientated at the start, but then they find that they’re engaged and in the kind of filmmaking that I do, I think that’s important.” Indeed, The Pearl Button proves itself a deft example of such filmmaking, splintering off like the tributaries that submerge Patagonia only to zoom out and reveal a single, complete Chile. “Seeing Chile from 40,000 feet into space gives the film a different perspective.”
Time also allows for perspective and it has afforded just such an opportunity in the case of Guzmán’s feature debut, 1972’s The First Year which acts as a primer to his iconic The Battle for Chile trilogy. “It was my first film and was found by pure chance. We thought it was lost because the dictatorship destroyed all the negatives.” Fortunately, it had been purchased by Chris Marker years ago and taken back to France and dubbed into French, recently reappearing in a library. “It was a very special experience because suddenly you are the spectator again. So much time has gone by that you have learnt and got a bit of objectivity and I enjoyed it.” They are hoping to release it in a restored box set along with The Battle for Chile trilogy in the near future. Meanwhile, Guzman is hard at work exploring the Andes for his next film. They’re currently searching for people who live deep in the mountains to speak to – something which was difficult in The Pearl Button, meaning that Guzman had to act as protagonist through his voiceover. “In the second film, it’s an area that’s so uninhabited that I had to assume the role as there’s no one there; I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the third one.” Sore throats abounded in more than thirty versions of the voiceover recorded during the one-year editing process. “When the film hasn’t got a personality,” Guzmán laughs, “you have to do the talking.”
Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button is available to own now on DVD courtesy of New Wave Films.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson