Fluid Logic: On ‘El botón de nácar’ by Patricio Guzmán

El botón de nácar (The Pearl Button)
Director: Patricio Guzmán
Distributor: New Wave Films

A camera pans over the cordillera with dips and swoops, cuts to water dripping on a zinc roof. Water runs down leaves and stalks of plants, splashes in rivers. We are shown comets, galaxies, rivulets, oceans; water is the connection, the intermediary force lying between the cosmos and ourselves. In The Pearl Button, Patricio Guzmán’s most recent documentary, released in Chile last year and screening in London theaters beginning March 18, water is the fluid that connects different moments in history, different parts of the universe. Guzmán’s documentary is ambitious, almost madly so. But though its argument may slip from between our fingers, the river of images we embark on remains so calm and constant it is a pleasure to bob along its surface, gliding over deep themes while avoiding the shoals of strong polemic.  In one of the first images, young artists roll out a large scale map of Chile, made of flattened cork with ragged edges. It takes several to do it, and the land curves as they go walking backward, unspooling the bundle in their hands. You realize how strange Chile is geographically, 2,670 miles of coastline and thin as a string bean. In a voiceover Guzmán says he has never seen a version of the land as complete as this until now, since in schools it was always broken into three parts for convenience. In the Patagonian south, the last part of the map to be laid down, the now extinct Selk’nam people supposedly lived in peace on the islands of Tierra del Fuego, passing their time collecting plants and paddling canoes. They liked to draw on their bodies, stripes and dots, and believed they would turn into stars after death. Then in the late 19th century the white men, the colonists, arrived seeking a place to settle. They gave the indigenous infected blankets and hunted them with guns, paying prices that differed depending if they brought back a man’s testicle, a woman’s breast or a child’s ear. Depressed, the indigenous turned to alcoholism, and in Spanish accounts of the time, the Selk’nam were described as monsters. By several different paths, the people of the south were exterminated.


 Guzmán seems to suggest these indigenous had a special intimacy with water, one that non indigenous Chileans no longer do. While the country ignores or even denies the Pacific, indigenous people and amateur astronomers (who appear in several of Guzmán’s films, another favorite theme of his) see water as an integral part of life. Water is the universe: does this logically mean the indigenous also had a closer relationship with reality and the structure of the universe? Not necessarily. What it does point to, perhaps, is a melancholy acceptance that within history different imaginary possibilities are embedded: disappeared people and places that might have survived, or perhaps still do, in some other reality or galaxy.

This documentary, focusing on the south of the country, is the second of a planned trilogy covering national geography. (Nostalgia de la luz, the first, took on the Atacama desert, and the third will travel to the center of the country.) Guzmán has always been interested in the national past, and his films tell the story over and over again of how the Allende government was toppled with the help of the CIA and replaced with the dictatorship of Pinochet. Cynics may suggest he is now using the entire universe to support his pro-Allende line of thinking. But it is possible to read the opposite message in his work: that beyond any national project, such as what it means to be “Chilean”, there also exist universal concepts such as curiosity, delight and beauty, water and the stars, and connections with nature and the universe. In one scene, the Chilean anthropologist Claudio Mercado sits by the river. He wears a wool vest over his dress shirt, a mixture of the traditional and the trim, and he looks relaxed. He takes a deep breath and then begins to make sounds, whispers, gurgles, guttural noises and laughs, which taken together compose a song. This is the song of another people living in Patagonian Chile, the Kawésqars. It is a hymn to nature that sounds like the river, and represents their cosmology. Are the laws of water also the laws of thought? Does a logic different than that of reason exist, a logic of analogy? Perhaps certain patterns in thinking can be traced, similarities between the perception of the mind and the colors and sounds of nature.


 The documentary explores some of these correspondences, seeking analogies between personal and universal history. Guzmán grew up by the coast, a childhood marked by the drowning of a school friend who one day swam too far out in the ocean. Guzmán loved to read novels by Jules Verne, including one about a young Indian named Jemmy Button, who traded his freedom for a pearl button. He was brought to Europe and turned into a gentleman, complete with frock coat and lacy collar, before being shipped back to his country. Jemmy Button’s hair grew out, but he was never fully the same again. He had traveled thousands of years forward from the natural to the industrial age, and back. The ocean can be, as it was for him, a place of crossing and transition.

It can also be a cemetery. As ever in Guzmán’s work, Salvador Allende is present this film, as is the theme of dictatorship. Dawson Island, in the south of the country, was the land the settlers made the indigenous people work. In the 1970s it was used as a political prison, and a comparison is drawn between violence in those two very different moments. All “victims” are looped into the same category, as death is universal, as are grief and pain. A diver is shown looking for rails at the bottom of the Pacific, bits of track torn up and used to hold down prisoners’ bodies during torture. Guzmán reenacts a gruesome death in which a rail is pressed against the back of a victim. He also reenacts the dumpings of bodies in the sea. Why does he do this? Perhaps he thinks only the visual and visceral can truly convince a viewer. Back on land, in the laboratory, a pearl button is found stuck to one of the rails, part of a human’s shirt. A pearl button, just like in the story about Jemmy Button. A bit of chance, a connection with Guzmán’s childhood readings. Or is it? The documentary is filmed in such a way that it constantly seeks analogies: between the treatment of the indigenous and the treatment of political prisoners, between Earth and Space, between the sound of water and the structure of the universe. As Guzmán’s writer friend Raúl Zurita notes, poetic knowledge possesses similarities with scientific knowledge. The solemnity of Guzmán’s voice is contagious. He asks surviving Kawésqars to pronounce different words. Some, such as God and police, do not exist in their language. Photographs of indigenous faces are shown, themselves maps, terrains of wrinkles. The romanticization of the indigenous way of life can sometimes be simple, but perhaps this is necessary. Structural analogies require opposition to work. The emphasis on the victim is no mere chance. Guzmán turns not to symbols but to structures of opposition: white man vs. Indian, dictatorship vs. political victim, nationalist Chilean vs. indigenous thinking.


What is the underlying classificatory function of these antagonistic structures? What holds these different moments and places together? An object: the pearl button. The pearl button becomes an open-ended analogy. It is all that is left of a victim. But it might also stand for the similarity between the structure of human consciousness and the universe, or the art of chance. (Did its discovery precede the idea of the film?) Or perhaps Guzmán does not even believe in chance. In the final moments he shows us a quasar in deep space, as large as thousands of oceans put together. In the light of preceding scenes, the suggestion is that in this enormous electromagnetic field, the souls of victims might find refuge.

The Pearl Button
 is about everything and nothing. For Guzmán the sound of water is the sound of the universe, and also the voice of the indigenous and disappeared. The documentary seems to suggest no less than a harmony between the universe and justice on behalf of the weak. This is an enormous claim, and it may well be a deep conviction of Guzmán’s. But one doesn’t have to agree with it to enjoy the documentary. The interest of the film lies in is its explorations of poetic analogy: ways of thinking that flow over and around the rigid structures of syllogistic logic.

— Jessica Sequeira