Directed by Patricio Guzmán
Starring Patricio Guzmán, Raúl Zurita
Documentary Film review by Colin Lomas
Water is the source of everything; our lives, our history, it has power, it is capable of sustaining life or destroying it, it holds communication from outer space and it defines our future. It is also the longest border to Chile, contrastingly one of the driest places on earth. These aquatic holistic musings are the basis of Patricio Guzmán’s latest part documentary, part spiritual investigation into what makes his homeland what it is.
The first thirty minutes or so of The Pearl Button is an account of what the ocean represents complemented with beautiful imagery of the sea and ice-caps with poetic portrayals of the Andes semi-submerged geography. Although charmingly romantic, a simmering sensation of art-house dread starts to accumulate as the brain begins to wonder whether another hour of this is possible to sit through without cracking open the wine. Luckily however, fascinating interviews with surviving members of the original indigenous Chilean tribes break up the daydream-like ocean fascinations as the movie establishes a structure.
The main turning point of the film is when Guzmán starts to document the arrival of Catholicism and the white Europeans to the country and their utter disregard for the indigenous people. ‘Indian hunters’ were paid ten shillings for every child’s ear they could deliver from the tribes. The shift in focus is intentionally punitive and everything suddenly takes on a much solemner tone. Humanity’s beauty and poetry is abruptly pivoted to humanity’s cruelty and malice, the extremes visually harmonised to the ocean’s comparative calm and ferocity.
The title of the movie itself comes from the payment for which Jemmy Button, a native Yámana, received to travel to England as a freak show piece for a British naval captain. The concept of a tribesman travelling to London in the middle of the industrial revolution is so alien in today’s world that it’s almost impossible to contemplate or truly understand.
Guzmán’s narration is almost hypnotic in its delivery and smartly complements both the holistic and the brutality of the story. Although the videography and cinematography are on occasion exquisite, there are times when Guzmán allows himself a little too much creative freedom and deviates into artful whimsy. These moments are relatively short however and manage to just about successfully weave into the documentary as a whole.
The Pearl Button feels like an odd film to sit through at times as you’re not sure whether you’re watching an art-house documentary about nature’s beauty or a harrowing critique of humanity’s violence, but then that’s the point. It leaves you scratching your head but is powerful enough to truly get under the skin.