Patricio Guzmán’s beautiful doc The Pearl Button at IFC Center & other NYC cinemas today

the pearl button

Seasoned filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, whose groundbreaking 1975 The Battle of Chile was a key event in the history of the documentary form, follows his astonishing recent work Nostalgia for the Light (2011) with a similar exploration of familiar themes such as memory and the historical past. The Pearl Button was awarded the Silver Bear for Best Script at 2015 Berlin Film Festival and is opening in NYC at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York City this weekend.

Knight: The Pearl Button is a very beautiful and moving film. I was very impressed with the way you used the metaphor of water, that is usually associated with life, to symbolise death and tragedy. And you used this metaphor to link two apparently unconnected stories: the story of the indigenous people who lived in the waterways of Western Patagonia and Pinochet’s dictatorship practice of dumping political prisoners in the sea.

Guzman: First of all we have to consider that Chile has 2,670 miles of coastline, that is a lot of water. Particularly in the South, there are a lot of channels entering the continent. Those channels were once inhabited by six different indigenous groups. And they were all executed by white men at the beginning of the 20th century.

There’s also the story of Jemmy Button, an indigenous inhabitant who was taken to England to be “civilised”. He agreed to go in exchange for a single mother-of-pearl button, hence his English name. When he was brought back to his community in Patagonia, he couldn’t readapt, he remained very much isolated, he died alone. These were discoveries that I made on a trip to Patagonia and served as the basis for the film.

I spent 10 days navigating through the channels with a small vessel, and when I arrived back in Santiago de Chile, I came across another story: a pearl button was found stuck to a rail brought to the surface by ocean divers. And I immediately made the connection between Jemmy Button and this other button. And with that, I pretty much had the whole film. And yes, it is my claim in the film that the ocean contains the history of all humanity. 

Knight: There is a reflection in the film about “the memory of water”, about how water remembers things, events, people. I was wondering if you were referring to the latest medical research from Japan where doctors discovered that water has indeed memory and the ability to form a molecular imprint of everything that comes into contact with it?

Guzman: Actually there are studies about the memory of water that are much older than that. Even in the 19th century in the diaries of FitzRoy, he mentions the possibility of water having memory. There’s another very interesting book by a researcher called Theodor Schwenk, it’s called Sensitive Chaos, published in 1962. This book also talks about water having memory.

Knight: I suppose those were theories whereas now there’s actually scientific proof that water has memory. And not many people know that.

Guzman: That’s true. The very first scientist who started to talk about that was a French scientist in the 1950s. And no one believed him!

Patricio Guzman

Patricio Guzmán during the making of The Pearl Button

Knight: Has the metaphor of ‘sea as cemetery’ been explored by other Chilean artists before or is this the first time it’s been put together in this way?

Guzman: The first time in cinema yes. As to the other Chilean artists I’m not completely sure.

Knight: Could you talk about the potential of beauty and beautiful imagery to convey horror and horrific events in such a powerful way? From this point of view, your film is like a cinematic oxymoron. There’s a disconnect between form and content in your film that mirrors the disconnect that must take place in the human brain when witnessing such horrors.

Guzman: The landscape where I shot the film is very beautiful, especially the channels in the South. There are waterfalls of ice and the sea has a very deep blue colour. There are also volcanos. That’s where the five main indigenous tribes lived and were very happy. And they all died within 2 years after the white men arrived. They wanted the land all to themselves so that they could bring cattle. They hired gunmen to exterminate the indigenous people. Those who remained alive were taken to the missions where they got contaminated with microbes brought from Europe. Today there are only six indigenous people alive.

Knight: What aspect of filmmaking have you found the most challenging in the making of this film?

Guzman: The most challenging part was navigating through those channels, there are very few boats that venture that way. Days and weeks can pass by without encountering any other human beings. And storms happen out of the blue. In those cases, you have to take shelter in a narrow channel and wait for it to pass.

There was another challenge near the coast of Santiago where Pinochet’s political prisoners were dumped. In this case the challenge was not geographic but the fact that there are still very few people willing to talk about it. All in all, it was a difficult film to make.

Knight: This was actually my next question: I read in your interview with Frederick Wiseman that the Chilean television is still a bit reluctant, even now, to show your documentaries on TV, is it true of this film also?

Guzman: We don’t know yet if the Chilean television will be interested in this film because the film is opening next week in cinemas in Chile. So we’ll see what happens.

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