The Pearl Button / Nostalgia for the Light
Chilean filmmaker, Patricio Guzmán has put together, brilliantly, a pair of documentaries, Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button, that attempt to resolve a tragedy, the great rift that tore his nation apart, leaving unhealed wounds – the US-backed military coup by Augusto Pinochet in 1973. The coup ripped up the foundations of a socialist democracy, replacing it with a state of right-wing terror. Thousands of people were jailed, tortured and disappeared. The history, legacy and the absence of those disappeared lie at the heart of these two profound and heart-breaking documentaries. Nostalgia for the Light takes place in Chile’s Atacama Desert, where super-telescopes scan the ultra-clear night skies in search of meanings to and answers of the Universe. It’s also the place where Pinochet set up a prison camp, where countless people disappeared. It’s also the place where mothers, sisters and wives of these disappeared now traverse the barren expanses of sand in search of a bone fragment of any evidence of what happened to their loved ones. Guzman documents these impassioned women on their “fool’s errand” as they wander the desert. The Pearl Button, his follow up to Nostalgia for the Light, takes place in a world of nearly constant inclemency, facing the Pacific – Chile’s southern Patagonia. Here also, Pinochet disappeared his state’s victims by taking still-living persons, binding iron rails to them, helicoptering them over the ocean and dumping them. Guzmán reenacts these painful procedures to devastating effect. Guzmán explores these dark years of contemporary Chilean history, countering it with an equally dark side of Chile’s older colonial past – the eradication of Patagonia’s indigenous tribes. Their rich heritage, illustrated by the amazing turn-of-the century photographs of Martin Gusinde was pretty much wiped out by genocide, disease and faux assimilation. Guzmán also interviews some older natives, who speak in the ancient tongues of their forefathers – perhaps the last recordings on film of their disappearing languages. He connects this continuum of disappearance through the images of two pearl buttons. One was the payment given to an indigenous Patagonian to go to England to be prodded, studied and displayed. He finally returned to find his people almost gone. The other button was a piece of evidence, found amid the barnacles and encrustations on a piece of rail found in the ocean – proof that a person was attached to it. From the cosmos to the oceans, from the stark landscapes of Atacama to the lush forests of Patagonia, Guzmán paints stunning images of beautiful and impassive natural places and forces, contrasting them with the terrible cruelty of humanity – and the stubborn goodness and intent of those who care. He offers few answers and asks many questions, but his search for a bit of understanding and truth testify to the human race’s better intentions.
Originally published in EL Magazine, October 2015