What “Nostalgia for the Light” did for the desert, “The Pearl Button” is meant to do for water, but the deft melding of past and present that characterized Patricio Guzman’s earlier film becomes muddied here by the Natural Science 101 voiceover and an unsatisfying bridge between two rather disparate subjects. On the one hand, there’s a fascinating discussion of the indigenous peoples who lived in the waterways of western Patagonia; on the other, the Pinochet dictatorship’s chilling practice of dumping political prisoners into the sea. Attractive images and involving subjects partly paper over gaps in connective tissue, but “Button” is unlikely to achieve a success equal to “Light.”
Considering that Chile boasts 2,670 miles of coastline, Guzman is right to question why a country with so much seafront has never capitalized on its maritime possibilities. Unsurprisingly, the answer lies in the nation’s colonial history: Chile did have five distinct ethnic groups whose life was intimately tied to the watery archipelagos of the south, but farmers and missionaries wiped them away. Now their languages, like Kawesqar and Yagan, are all but dead, and their culture a cherished memory among the few people who still recall 600-mile canoe trips between the islands.
Guzman interviews several of these elders, weaving in fascinating early 20th-century photographs by Martin Gusinde of the extinct Selk’nam people as well as ethnological films. The pic’s title comes from a short history lesson about Jemmy Button, a Yagan teen sold to a British naval captain in 1830 for a mother-of-pearl button (anthropologists may cringe at the line “He traveled from the Stone Age to the Industrial Age, and back”). Another button makes an appearance towards the docu’s end, but a sense of poetic closure feels forced.
Perhaps that’s because tying together the genocide of an entire race, whose way of life was sea-based, with the targeted murders of thousands of political dissidents simply doesn’t hold water. No one can (or should) fault Guzman for his vital insistence, throughout his long career, on ensuring that the crimes of the military dictatorship are never forgotten. Yet a re-creation of the horrific manner in which people, some still alive, were bagged, tied to pieces of railroad track, and dumped from helicopters into the sea belongs to another movie. A miniseries would perhaps be a better way to explore the complex relationship between Chile and its coastline, rather than a film that struggles to connect such unrelated subjects.
Guzman’s soporific voiceover, especially at the start, with too-basic information about how water arrived on earth, aims for a lyricism that feels forced. Does water, even in poetry, really retain a memory of the things and people it encounters? Surely, as John Keats so brilliantly expressed in his self-scribed epitaph “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” aqueous substances obliterate traces left behind, and all that remains is but a chance survivor of nature’s inexorable eraser.
Visuals were shot on 2K digital, and while the lensing of Patagonia’s majestic, awe-inspiring glaciers is undeniably beautiful, the print viewed contains less of the staggering tonal ranges auds have come to expect from nature docus. Speculations about water in other solar systems, including CGI imaginings, are superfluous to the argument, and fantasizing about whether the indigenous peoples could have found safe haven in another galaxy is best left to the likes of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs.