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Film focus: The Pearl Button

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Chilean director Patricio Guzmán’s newest film The Pearl Button takes the viewer on a journey as turbulent as the waves the film so vividly describes. Scarlett Sullivan

With his candid and visually attractive documentaries, internationally renowned Patricio Guzmán has firmly established himself in the industry as an innovative filmmaker. The celebrated Nostalgia for the Light, which explored revolution, repression and remembrance in Chile, formed the first part of a trilogy; Guzmán’s latest documentary,  The Pearl Button, is the second instalment.

Beginning with astounding footage of the rainstorms, waterfalls and icebergs of the Patagonian Archipelago and graced with the dulcet tones of Guzmán himself as he asserts the universal importance of water, we find ourselves tenderly placed into the native heart of Chile. Accompanied by astronomical images, Guzmán depicts how, for the indigenous cultures of Alacalufe and Yaghan, the sea and stars formed a vital part of their everyday life.

The rolling map of Chile, carefully crafted by artists, wittily offers us a sense of how, often, the sheer length of this country is incomprehensible. With a coastline measuring over 2,500 miles, the vastness of the ocean, as well as its innate place within native culture, is made clear.

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Guzmán starkly contrasts this connection between the natural world and the indigenous peoples with the ignorant barbarity of the European settlers, who contaminated and obliterated the native population within a matter of decades. Detailed descriptions of torturous methods as well as a reanimation of bodies being flung into the depths of ocean changes the tone of the film to something heated and intense. This rapid shift from a tender appreciation for and admiration of the indigenous population to the stark, brutal truth of colonisation is jolting, especially as Guzmán’s soothing commentary continues to reverberate.

The true story of ‘Jemmy Button’, embodies the crux of this film: a native boy who, in exchange for a pearl button, was taught Western ways before being returned to Chile, never regaining his true identity. The magnificence of these lands will never cease to remain, but there is something reduced and altered in the atmosphere which, as much as the last few descendants try, will never be restored.

A documentary which drives home the sheer horror and suffering which took place during the Pinochet regime, in a manner which leaves the viewer feeling more contemplative then despondent, can be seen as much as a work of visual and auditory art as a cinematic experience. For me, this morbid truth would be better placed in another documentary, as it tarnishes Guzmán’s initial, beautiful exploration of Chile’s connection with the natural world.

You can can catch The Pearl Button at the Watershed until Monday the 28th March: http://www.watershed.co.uk/whatson/7169/the-pearl-button. All photos from New Wave Films Youtube.