Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button

I’m feeling very fortunate indeed indeed to have just caught Chilean director Patricio Guzmán’s amazing movie The Pearl Button in its UK release.  I try and see as many films as I can every year, but Guzmán’s films are always something extra special.  For those who don’t know him, Guzmán is a documentary filmmaker who learned his craft at the Official School of Film in Spain – a school created by Franco to make Spain look good which ironically produced some of Spain’s greatest leftist directors such as Victor Erice, Juan Antonio Bardem and Pilar Miró.

Guzmán is also of the left.   He first became internationally known for his epic three-part account of the rise and fall of Salvador Allende and the Popular Unity movement The Battle of Chile.  Now 74 years old, Guzmán has not followed the tedious trajectory from youthful leftwing activism into conservative ‘realism’, but his passionate concern with social justice is now only one component of a wider and more reflective artistic vision that has transformed him into one of the few genuine poets working in contemporary cinema.

To call Guzmán a documentary film-maker doesn’t even begin to describe what he does. He fuses together images of astounding power and beauty with words, introspective voiceovers, philosophical reflections and meditations, political observations, and brilliantly realized interviews to create films that linger on in the mind long after you’ve seen them.

His last offering Nostalgia for the Light was a hauntingly beautiful meditation on astronomy, the cosmos, history, memory, and the tragedy of the Chilean disappeared, all centred on Chile’s awesome Atacama desert.   Memory is an essential theme in Guzmán’s work.  It emerges in his films as a kind of connective tissue that binds the past to the present, different generations to their predecessors, and individuals to their wider community and to the earth itself.

Like Milan Kundera in a different context, his films are a way of combating political ‘forgetting’ and the power of dictatorships like Pinchet’s to wipe out the memory of their opponents, and the crimes that were committed to eliminate them.   Guzmán is also fascinated by landscape, and by the beguiling and unusual geography of his native Chile in particular, but his landscapes are also haunted landscapes, saturated with Chile’s tragic recent history.

All of these concerns are present in the icy and watery landscapes of Patagonia,  which provide the central stage and object of inquiry  The Pearl Button.  The film is partly a celebration of water – in rivers, seas, and ghostly Patagonia icescapes that echo nineteenth century visions of polar landscapes as the epitome of the sublime.  But Patagonia is also a landscape of genocide, colonial oppression and political murder.

Guzmán interviews surviving members of the indigenous Indian population that was wiped or suppressed during the expansion of Chile’s colonial frontier in the nineteenth century, and the military campaigns that made it possible.  He movingly celebrates the way of life that was lost by their incorporation into ‘civilization’, and their close relationship with the sea and the rivers that dissect Patagonia, which led some of them to undertake thousand mile journeys or round Cape Horn in wicker canoes.

A key thread in the film is the relationship between human beings and  landscape, and also the interaction between water and landscape and the physical transformations that result from it.  Some of the images in the film, such as an amazing sequence of a groaning, creaking cathedral of ice are simply breathtaking – and their power is enhanced by the slow dreamy music and seamless editing, and by the poetic reflections and insights that Guzmán’s delivers in his solemn, velvety voice.

Patagonia is also the place where the Pinochet dictatorship – like its counterpart in Argentina –  dropped the bodies of its victims into the ocean, sometimes tying them to train rails to make them sink. Guzmán retraces this awful history, and goes in search of traces of the victims, like a detective revisiting a crime scene in a cold case.

He meticulously reconstructs how they were killed.  He finds traces of these crimes in barnacle formations on rails brought up from the ocean.   He mourns the victims and indicts their perpetrators.  Through the power of his images and the poetic sensibility that he brings to bear on the Patagonian landscape and its history, he also makes his audience mourn these unknown victims.

Guzmán’s unflinching depiction of these cruelties is not simply the result of his concern with Chilean politics.  Some of the most powerful interview contributions to the film come from the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, a former prisoner of the Pinochet regime now suffering from Parkinsons, who says something to the effect that crimes such as the Chilean disappeared are crimes that the whole human family are responsible for, and which diminish all of us.

The same can be said of many of the horrific crimes that are currently taking place on a daily basis.   In this sense Guzmán’s Patagonia is a true mirror of what Gramsci called ‘this great and terrible world’, and despite the tragedies it describes,  it still manages to convince us that all is not lost, and that we remain part of a marvellous and magical planet that is still worth fighting for.


Nostalgia for the Light

On a rainy Bank Holiday evening, we drove through the last murky dregs of the-summer-that-never-was to Sheffield to see the Chilean director Patrizio Guzmán’s wonderful Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia de la Luz).

Guzmán is a documentary   filmmaker and a leftist, who is most famous for the epic three-part study of the rise and fall of Allende, The Battle of Chile.

The Chilean coup is a major theme of Guzmán’s latest offering.   But Nostalgia for the Light is not a political film in any conventional sense.   It’s an utterly unique personal meditation on astronomy, national and personal memory, history, politics and mortality, set in the arid wastes of Chile’s Atacama desert.

Here, in the midst of a landscape that looks more like Mars than earth, the dry climatic conditions provide a vantage point of exceptional clarity for astronomers, who have established a sophisticated network of telescopes and monitoring technologies for observing stars and solar systems – a process whose origins coincided with the fall of Allende and the Pinochet dictatorship.

The extraordinary images captured by these telescopes and cameras provide the film with sequences of breathtaking beauty, which alternate with Guzmán’s own equally striking photography of the fantastic landscape of the Atacama.

Guzmán uses his camera like an archeologist’s excavation tools, patiently uncovering human traces in a seemingly blank and uninhabitable landscape that include rock drawings drawn by pre-Columbian shepherds, 1,000-year-old dessicated corpses, and cemeteries of Indians and nomadic workers who died in the desert in the nineteenth century.

This footage is interspersed with interviews with astronomers and archeologists working in the desert, and accompanied by a voiceover narration from Guzmán himself, in which he reflects on his lifelong passion for astronomy, on the lost paradise of childhood, on the history of the desert, on the legacy of the Chilean coup, on history, archeology and the importance of remembering.

The title of the film is related to an idea expressed in the film by one eloquent young astronomer, who points out that in astronomical terms there is no such thing as the present moment and that everything that happens already belongs to the past, from the speed of light to the time it takes for a camera and microphone to record an interview.

Guzmán extends this notion of the ‘fragile present’ to Chile’s more recent tragic history.     The Pinochet dictatorship used the remoteness and isolation of Atacama as a convenient location for one of the worst of its concentration camps for political prisoners, in a former settlement once used by nineteenth century miners.

Atacama was also used as a secret burial ground for prisoners murdered by the regime, and today, nearly forty years after the coup, relatives of the disappeared still go to the desert to search for the remains of their relatives and loved ones.

Guzmán’s interviews with the women who scour the desert for bones and traces of the disappeared are deeply moving.       In examining their motives for this seemingly futile and obsessive quest, he insists on memory as an essential component of human experience, and transforms the seemingly inhuman wastes of the Atacama into a kind of mirror that celebrates and reinforces the presence of humanity in surprisingly hopeful ways.

Only through the act of remembering,   he argues, can societies and individuals hope to live as human beings within the ‘fragile present’ – no matter how painful the memories may be, while those without memory are condemned to live nowhere at all.

If all this sounds a little too abstract, philosophical and even pretentious for a night out at the cinema, don’t cheat yourself.       For there is nothing either pretentious about this profound and deeply humane masterpiece that makes much of contemporary cinema look like shallow, pre-packaged dross.

Incredibly, Nostalgia for Light was rejected by fifteen television companies and the   Centre National de la Cinématographie in Guzmán’s adopted country France, during its search for funding and subsidies.   The completion of the film was largely due to the participation of Guzmán’s wife Renata Sachse as producer, and financed by personal loans.

The overall budget eventually reached a paltry 600,000 euros, and the fact that Guzmán had such trouble obtaining them speaks volumes about the priorities of a film industry whose obsession with the lowest (and most profitable) denominator has too often made it fearful of anything that cannot be easily categorized and commercialised.

Anyone who expects that cinema should be more than entertainment or diversion can only be grateful for this jewel of a film, that has pushed the boundaries of the documentary genre to create a deeply affecting work of art.