While there is a popular standpoint that documentaries are among the best ways to stay informed, even shocked into awareness, about current events, by their mode of production even the most timely-released of films can’t help but be separated from the period they depict. All documentaries speak to us from the past. Patricio Guzmán, a filmmaker who first came to prominence in the 1970s with the release of The Battle of Chile, a three-part document of political revolution, is especially aware of this paradox. If Guzmán is not especially well-known today in Canada, this is partly because he has remained working in Chile, continuing to compile, reflect on, and contextualize the history of his country, instead of chasing stories and topics across continents.
This is not to say Guzmán is an enduring nationalist or locked within a border. The Pearl Button opens with Guzmán attempting to fit two strands of thought together, for both have been on his mind: water, less as a resource in the northern Pacific coast drought kind of way, more as the central piece of a culture, a way of eating, thinking, and living; and the indigenous people that used to be the main inhabitants of the Patagonian region. The first parts of The Pearl Button follow a topic of Guzmán’s previous feature, Nostalgia for the Light: the Atacama Large Millimeter Array’s satellites, pointed toward the stars, looking for water on other planets, before slipping into an impressionistic flow of thought about water and its centrality to human life.
Water imagery is a standard that has mostly been taken up by advertising. If you need something to look fresh, athletic, sleek, or new, a climactic splash of water on a product, beads in perfect focus, is all you need. But Guzmán avoids this nearly all-encompassing framing, capturing water as an alien, amorphous, moving, shape-shifting thing beyond easy definition. Guzmán wonders, but when he looks to the present, he is dissatisfied with the way people inspect and categorize water, removing themselves from it. In the past, he finds, indigenous people valued and worked with water, rather than regarded it from a distance.
And so Guzmán makes his documentary a place where inquiry into history happens, consistent with his statement that the form, rather than a genre among the many genres of cinema, is a unique way of working, a “practice of knowledge.” He sits down in front of indigenous artists, scientists, and storytellers, and asks them to talk. For anyone who’s paid any attention to the Truth and Reconciliation report in this country, their stories are a reminder that the genocidal efforts of European settlers, politicians, and law enforcement are not limited to the formation history of one or a few particular countries, and pre-date the borders drawn on the western hemisphere’s map (like Native peoples who reject the tag of “Canadian,” the Kawésqar and other groups do not recognize the term “Chilean”).
Guzmán, who also interviews poets, cartography artists, and anthropologists, conducts interviews with a complete absence of pretension or confrontation — like a friend. At the same time, some of his tendencies are consistent with stereotypes: outside the interviews, in voiceover, he regards the indigenous people of the present as disappearing, romanticizing their connection to the water and the stars as a pre-industrial paradise. Giving the account of one man who was stolen and taken back to Europe by colonialists, Guzmán tries to articulate the extreme disturbance this must have caused, to be forcibly moved from one side of the ocean to the other, saying he was taken from the “Stone Age” to the “Industrial Revolution.” But indigenous life did and still does co-exist with technological inventions, and assigning still-living languages and peoples to the past is a flaw of history Guzmán does not take the time to examine. This is, perhaps, inevitably what happens in a first-person document: people have blind spots, though their subjectivity also uncovers and expresses in ways a pseudo-objective documentary will not.
Cecilia Ricciarelli writes that, even if he relies on the seemingly shaky foundation of memory, Guzmán’s work is founded on a kind of rigour. “For Guzmán, documentary cinema forms part of the critical and analytical conscience of a society,” she writes. The Pearl Button, which comes at a time when many other filmmakers are also confronting genocide after years of silence (Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust, Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, Panh’s The Missing Picture), at times appears to be the insertion of voices into a historical compendium, a director trying to record this while he still can. “If water has memory, it will also remember this,” he narrates, and the film’s presence and scope, from small rooms on the ground to galaxies outside our solar system, suggests that this is something all of nature is implicitly connected to.