The Pearl Button: Engagement, by Aaron Pinkston
Chilean auteur Patricio Guzmán doesn’t approach nature documentaries like anyone else, though even that assumes you could classify his newest film, The Pearl Button, as such. For this tone poem on the deeper cultural meanings of water, Guzmán employs normal practices of scientist talking heads and beautiful nature photography. His greater interests, however, lie in the history of people and the environment, their connections through time. This creates a much more impressionistic, spiritual take on the discussion around the importance of our environment. With absolutely gorgeous photography and somber narration, it wonderfully marries the beauty and serenity of its topic.
Chile is a complicated landscape, from the Andes mountains to the driest desert on Earth and the longest coastline of any country. It is also full with a rich and complicated history. Chile’s indigenous people, the Patagonians (let’s take a second to consider the cultural history of that word and its representation for most Americans today), were sailors who survived in harmony with the vast Pacific Ocean to the immediate west. Their story is a tragic one, akin to the native people to the north. As the Spanish marched through South America, they saw the Patagonians as uncivilized monsters and labelled them for their abnormally large feet. Guzmán notes that there are only about 20 direct descendants alive in the region today. Their story has had the greater effect that, at least as Guzmán sees it, Chile is fearful of the ocean, its people disconnected from it.
The Pearl Button tells this and many other stories from Chile’s past and present. They are connected tangentially, water acting as the only real through-line. The film’s major thesis is that water has a memory – that it has lived through this history, observed it, recorded it. Honestly, the concepts aren’t easy to grasp, and the film’s density doesn’t care hold your hand along the way. Narration like “How many wandering souls might find refuge in this vast ocean that’s drifting in the void” is pretty representative of the ponderous intellectualism at hand – it’s not exactly smooth or easy to engage with, obvious translation impacts aside. Guzmán is likely more interested in the film’s audience feeling his claims and connections, however, and that is much more manageable and appropriate.
The most basic appeal of the film, though, is its nature cinematography. Running water is one of the most intrinsically beautiful things that a high quality camera can shoot, and The Pearl Button enhances on that with its framing, camera movement and use of slow-motion techniques. The cinematography duties were held by Katell Djian, who has worked primarily in nature and space-themed documentaries and on previous works by Guzmán and Nicolas Philibert. When he’s not shooting water, the camera has an anthropological style, with intricately staged images of photographs, artifacts and its talking-heads subjects. After watching the film, I went back to random points in the film and watched the images without sound – even disconnected to the deeper meaning of the film, the images have a lot to offer.
With its grand concepts, The Pearl Button also reaches into the cosmos, looking for water across the galaxies. This particular stand is a bit out there (pun intended), but is very much in its director’s greater look at the world, connecting The Pearl Button directly with his previous film, Nostalgia for the Light, which was more wholly and explicitly looking to space to answer the philosophical questions of life. Guzmán’s expansive, intellectual aims are deep, but anchored by the emotional and spiritual stories of people. Even being less than 90 minutes, it is an incredibly rich and stimulating experience.