The Pearl Button (4 stars)

The Pearl Button

Beguiling and enlightening documentary from veteran director Patricio Guzmán

Water is a recurring motif in Patricio Guzmán’s lyrical, beguiling documentary essay The Pearl Button. The director of Nostalgia for the Light now views Chile as a land defined by its 2,670 mile coastline, by the fate of Patagonia’s nomadic Kaweskar (Water People) and by the oceans that brought European colonialists to Chile’s shores along with disease, alcohol and exploitation.

In 1830, Jemmy Button, a native of Tierra del Fuego, was taken to England by a ship’s captain and promised that he would be allowed to enjoy all the advantages of a modern civilisation. He agreed to go in exchange for a single mother-of-pearl button, giving him his English name and the film its title.

Filled with stunning images from cinematographer Katell Djian, The Pearl Button unfolds with all the complexity of a spider’s web as we are encouraged to make connections between ancient and modern, recorded history and metaphysical musing, the tiny human event and the bigger picture to be found in a study of the cosmos. There is an unusual grace in the way Guzmán chooses to address such a lengthy legacy of violence and oppression.

The Pearl Button is a film brimming with a restless, infectious curiosity. It captures the testimony of those who bear witness to history in the words of the last surviving descendants of the Kaweskar, but also focuses on more recent events in which the oceans serve as a mass grave for the thousands who disappeared during the Pinochet regime.

Throughout his near 50-year career, Guzmán has devoted himself to ensuring that the country’s history is neither forgotten nor rewritten by the victors and The Pearl Button is another invaluable addition to his legacy. Mournful and melancholy, designed to challenge the intellect and stimulate the senses, Guzmán makes the complex currents of the past accessible and endlessly intriguing.

Limited release from Fri 18 Mar.

The Pearl Button

  • 4 stars
  • 2015
  • France / Chile / Spain / Switzerland
  • 1h 22min
  • Directed by: Patricio Guzmán

Documentary centred on but not limited to the indigenous Kaweskar people of Patagonia, drawing connections between ancient and modern; the title refers to an incident from the voyage of HMS Beagle but the film also looks at how the oceans are a mass grave for people killed during the Pinochet regime, Mournful and…