The Pearl Button
Directed by Patricio Guzmán
The Pearl Button promised to be a poetic and thought-provoking documentary about Chile’s 2,670 miles of coastline and the significance of water for indigenous tribes in Patagonia (a region that includes Chile and Argentina as well as several South American islands). I didn’t know much about the history of Chile or its native peoples, but I was eager to learn. The documentary, however, did not live up to my expectations, and I was rather surprised by how uninspiring I found much of the film. Its slow pace and low information density makes each scene drag on — I often expected a scene to cut minutes before it actually did. Guzmán incorporates voice-overs, photographs, interviews with tribal elders, grainy black-and-white clips, outer-space CGI (which felt supremely out of place), and long takes of coastal scenery (which were beautiful, and perhaps the best part of the experience). However, the documentary’s biggest weakness is that it is abruptly split into two seemingly disjoint parts.
The first half is relatively light-hearted; we witness a man walking about outside imitating, in song, the sounds of the nearby river. We learn that water in all forms has a near sacred status for these tribes — they would canoe thousands of miles, setting up camps along the coast, and members of the tribe would learn dive to collect shellfish at a young age. Interviews and voice-overs tell of the tragic genocide of these indigenous peoples, and to illustrate this further, Guzmán asks tribe elders to translate words like “ocean,” “beach,” and “canoe” into their tribe’s language — only a handful of people living today speak the language. This half moved slowly, and the narration of overly basic facts about water felt out of place next to the rich ethnographic quality of the conversations with the elders.
The second is much heavier thematically with a political and historical slant. One moment, an old woman recounts a canoeing journey, then we learn a tad more about colonialism, and suddenly the film dives into the secret imprisonment and torture of political dissidents in Chile in the 1970s. We watch the filmmakers recreate the death of a political prisoner (with a mannequin), going as far as to throw the ”body” into the sea from a helicopter (a fate that befell more than 1,200 prisoners).
The documentary’s strength is its visual impact, but the breathtaking scenes of coastline and the insightful interviews with the tribe’s elders don’t make up for the its lack of focus and the abrupt shift between the two parts. The first half was okay, the second half was good, but the way the parts were forced together made for an overall confusing and disappointing experience.