Patricio Guzmán on The Pearl Button

Have the strongest people always dominated everywhere? We look into Patricio Guzmán’s new film The Pearl Button, ahead of its UK release this week.


The Pearl Button (2015)
The Pearl Button (2015)

“I’d love for these water people not to have disappeared.”
Patricio Guzmán, The Pearl Button

Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán was held in solitary confinement in Santiago’s National Stadium and was threatened with execution after the 1973 coup d’etat brought down Salvador Allende. He has since lived in Cuba, Spain and France. His acclaimed films have been premiered at Cannes film festival including the stand out The Battle of Chile (1975-78), Obstinate Memory (1997), The Pinochet Case (2001), Salvador Allende (2004) and Nostalgia for the Light (2010). The later was awarded the Grand Prix by the European Film Academy in 2010 and his trilogy The Battle of Chile is considered one of the best documentary films ever made.

Even today, the military is involved in Chilean affairs. Chile is an island with no right to strikes, no freedom of expression and the church meddles with state affairs. In Chile, for the popular masses that fought against the dictatorship there’s still a long way to remove its violent consequences: a mere 40 percent of the dictatorship’s crimes have been brought to trial leaving other crimes, including citizens involved with it, still untouched.

Following his Nostalgia for the Light, which was set in the extreme deserts in the north of Chile, Guzmán shifts his direction to the seas that line Chile’s longest border known as Western Patagonia for his new film The Pearl Button. We saw it at its UK premier at last year’s BFI London Film Festival and were struck by its beauty. Guzmán and his commands Keri Lee Pashuk and Greg Landreth sailed to the extraordinary glaciers of Patagonia from Seno del Almirantazgo to the Beagle Canal where he shot his film.

Patricio Guzmán
Patricio Guzmán

Keeping true to his work theme, Guzmán examines the stories of Pinochet’s coup d’etat further to try and understand what happened. But as Guzmán believes, the coup d’etat will hang around for a century. Chile today is a country in which abortion is illegal, there are no gay rights and lives under Pinochet’s constitution.

The Pearl Button features unseen archive photographs and a huge map of Chile scaled down to 15-metres long by Guzmán’s friend and painter Emma Malig. Guzmán’s influence for his film came from the unique historical photographs of the Kawesqar ethnic survivors taken by Paz Errázuriz in the 1990s and Selk’nam ethnic groups in their canoes taken by Austrian priest Martin Gusinde. Alongside its outstanding cast that includes last descendants of the Kaweskar and Yagan ethnic groups, social historian Gabriel Salazar and poet Raúl Zurita, Guzmán’s latest film is an extraordinary and remarkable documentary. It takes us a step closer to revealing the chilling events of the coup d’etat and the crimes of the colonisers practised to the indigenous people of Patagonia.

Is The Pearl Button a continuation of your 1992 film, The Southern Cross?

It’s not a continuation as such. But of course it touches on the same thing. I consider it the most similar thing that I’ve made. The last two films that I’ve made, Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button, are obviously similar to The Southern Cross.

Had you visited the southern country of Chile before you started filming The Pearl Button?

No, I had never been to the southern country until 2012.

Since you made Nostalgia for the Light there seem to be more people taking responsibility for their crimes. Have people opened up in Chile?

Yes, there are more groups that want to fight for justice. And there are groups of ex-prisoners that are getting organized. Many lawyers are now dealing with these civil rights cases. There are also strong students’ movements that are supporting this. So essentially there’s change, not as quickly as one would have liked but it’s changed.

This is very optimistic.

Yes, I’m an optimist now.

What’s the link between the disappeared and the indigenous people in The Pearl Button?

They are the same thing. The indigenous people were exterminated, literally shot, contaminated and encapsulated in the same place where 100 years later Allende’s ministers were also encapsulated. So there is a direct physical connection between the two.

pearl-button-the-2015-05-native-manA repetition of history, only that 10,000 years later we see these crimes become more sophisticating. However there’s optimism in your film.

I think there are more elements now, more laws, more experts and specialists who can study this whole period of repression and dictatorship. There are writers, authors, judges who have written their own memoirs. So there are whole groups of different elements in the society, which are open to judge what happened at that time.

Oblivion struck Chile’s people up until recently then. What’s the importance of collective memory in a society?

What I do is try to not forget. To always remember what happened with Pinochet at the end of Allende’s period. To speak with the prisoners and the judges, to keep all this alive but I’m not a militant activist and I’ve never been one. I’ve always been independent: you can manage to be a little more when you’re faced with all that happened in Chile. The life of an intellectual in a country like Chile cannot function in another way: you have to make everything you can do by studying to keep the memory alive. You must not be scared to be militant in that way. That is the fundamental purpose of filming. I want to stress I don’t make it for militant purposes. It’s more of a humanistic point of view.

How does photography and art influence your work?

First of all I found the artists. I had worked with painter Emma Malig before in my film Salvador Allende and I asked her to make a complete map of Chile for The Pearl Button. I loved the idea of this 15-meters map in order to show what Chile looks like. You can role it up! A country you can role up! It was of course an old map of South America and you can see the Andes and it’s all a bit diffused and ambiguous. But if you actually read the map flat and put it on the ground you can see the country. It took her two months to make it.

Renate Sachse (Atacama Productions): So initially she wanted to make it 20-meters long but she couldn’t find somewhere to roll it out. So she had to reduce it to 15. Her atelier was 5-meters long so she had to do it in parts, five at a time and then put it together.

Could you tell us about your collaboration with Chris Marker?

Chris helped us specifically with the logistics of the material, film and time at the edits. He wasn’t a collaborator as such and he wasn’t standing at the editor’s room with me. He would write a letter with ideas and advice but more in general. And afterwards I didn’t see him. I went to Cuba to do all the editing for the film [The Battle of Chile trilogy], to put it together. It was an infinite and exhausting work and I’d lost touch with him at that point. I re-found him in San Francisco and he was very warm. Then, sadly he died two years ago.

Gabriela Paterito

Both listening to the indigenous people and the sound in The Pearl Button are incredible. Did you deliberately choose to use the voice over at the ending credits as an act of survival?

Yes, I did. I was fascinated by the sound of the accent. I had no idea what she [Gabriela Paterito] was saying. I didn’t even know if she was answering what I had asked her because she spoke and spoke a lot. She’s extraordinary that woman.

What do you consider as an achievement in your work?

To tell the history of Chile and especially to review that history from the 70s to now, 40 years on.

Is there anything you want to say about new documentary filmmakers?

It’s fascinating, the reality of everything. Such extraordinary things happen in the world but you have to document. In Latin America there are hundreds of films waiting to be made and it must be the same in all other countries. You have to just pick up the camera and shoot yourself. And it doesn’t matter how it’s going to be distributed. It’s happening now in the streets, there are hundreds of documentaries that have to be made now.

The Pearl Button is released in UK on 18 March.


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