Landscape, Cinema, Memory: Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button by Patricio Guzmán

August 18, 2015

This is the first in a series of articles co-presented with Cinema Tropical, the leading presenter of Latin American cinema in the U.S. The series explores themes in contemporary culture and the overlap between the visual arts and film.


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Still from The Pearl Button (2015) by Patricio Guzmán
Still from The Pearl Button (2015) by Patricio Guzmán

Nostalgia for the Light (2010) and The Pearl Button (2015) continue the interrogation of the past that filmmaker Patricio Guzmán began with Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997). Nearly twenty years have passed since the release of that film, in which Guzmán brought back copies of his trilogy on Popular Unity and the coup d’état, The Battle of Chile (1975-1979), to confront the amnesic Chile of the nineties with documentary evidence of a past that had been unable to find its place within the democratic transition.

Today, no longer satisfied to use film as a vehicle for the expression of a social memory that resists the erasure of the past, Guzmán focuses his concerns on the cinematic exploration of space. I am not referring to the cosmos, though there is some element of that in his most recent works. I mean that the narrative and affective center of these works is situated within two landscapes: the desert and the sea, which Guzmán sees as enormous repositories for a multitude of stories. Accumulating layer by layer, the desert and the sea are converted into archives containing both visible and concealed histories.

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Still from Nostalgia For the Light (2010) by Patricio Guzmán
Still from Nostalgia For the Light (2010) by Patricio Guzmán

In Nostalgia for the Light, three searches for the past intertwine: the astronomers who study occurrences that took place light years ago; the archeologists who comb beneath the earth’s surface to detect clues to understanding indigenous cultures; and the women who day by day stir the sands to uncover the bodies of family members disappeared by the dictatorship. All of these searches take place within the same landscape: the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, whose aridity preserves the past and also allows exceptional visibility for the telescopes that have been installed there.

All layers of time coexist in the desert, Guzmán seems to suggest. Here we can find pre-Columbian ruins; graveyards of 19th-century miners, the remains of their homes later converted into a concentration camp by the dictatorship; vestiges of that camp, with the most visible signs of the violence that took place there having been erased; bones that were once bodies; telescopes that observe the past lives of the cosmos. How can we cope with the moral demand of a present that urges us not to forget, if the present, as the scientists in the observatory tell us, does not exist? Such is the paradox of this unique landscape: the distant past is more easily accessible than recent history.

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Still from Nostalgia For the Light (2010) by Patricio Guzmán
Still from Nostalgia For the Light (2010) by Patricio Guzmán

The Pearl Button establishes an immediate continuity with its predecessor, opening with a block of quartz discovered in the Atacama Desert. The camera observes it carefully: something seems to be enclosed within. The narrating voice of Guzmán tells us that the block contains a drop of water. And water, the film will try to show, seems to contain the entirety of the world’s memory.

There is a substantial difference here. If Nostalgia for the Light is centered on the desert as a landscape charged with cultural meaning, the protagonist of The Pearl Button is one of the elements of life—water in all its forms, which generate a variety of landscapes and types of music: glaciers, chains of waves, drops balancing on plants like enormous balloons, native forests; the sound of flowing water, the drumming of the rain on a metal roof (the landscape of childhood), the inspired and enigmatic song of an anthropologist who reproduces the rivers’ melodies.

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Still from The Pearl Button (2015) by Patricio Guzmán
Still from The Pearl Button (2015) by Patricio Guzmán

Out of this diverse range of possible lives for water, the sea takes on predominance insofar as it, like the desert, encompasses unfathomable layers of time. Above all, it contains the history of two exterminations: that of the indigenous people of the southern territory, seafaring nomads who traveled from island to island and who were murdered by the Chilean state, colonists and missionaries; and that of the disappeared, dropped to the bottom of the ocean by the military dictatorship. The sea, beyond the shadow of a doubt, is filled with dead bodies.

The button is the device used in the film to bring together these two disappearances. A pearl button was what the British crown paid when it took an indigenous person and “civilized” him for years in England, teaching him the language, renaming him Jemmy Button, and later returning him to the southern extreme of the world as a misfit, an exile in his own land. And a button—from a shirt, from a pair of pants?—was what was found attached to a metal rail pulled from the sea, one of those rails the military would bind to murdered bodies so that they would sink to the bottom of the sea, never to return to the surface.

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Still from The Pearl Button (2015) by Patricio Guzmán
Still from The Pearl Button (2015) by Patricio Guzmán

From water to the sea, from the sea to the rail, from the rail to the button, and from the button to everything else—a micro-historical object for telling the tragic tale of Chile.

There is an insistence in these films on landscape as a repository, and at the same time, as a transformative entity. Landscape is no longer a background image that accompanies the description of events, nor is it a mere narrative device that stitches together disparate stories and historical periods. Landscape does not exist independent of human agency; each is transformed by the other. This is not nature, though it can sometimes be confused with it.

For example, one of the most powerful sequences is the one in which the voice of Guzmán enumerates the torturers’ practices one after another, while we see a succession of images of native forests. This is a tremendous juxtaposition, between the repertoire of human horror and the beauty of nature, even if it is no longer virginal.

Or another sound image: Gabriela, explaining in the Kaweskar language how to say every word that Guzmán says to her in Spanish. It is the sonic invasion of an indigenous dialect that refuses to disappear, and social invasion of a special communion with the aquatic landscape—an intimacy that has indeed disappeared.

For now Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button constitute a diptych, but in the future they will be made into a trilogy intertwining the recent history of Chile with its geography (the next documentary will focus on the Andes mountains). One last point with regard to this: both films attempt to display a chain that links national territory (geography) to the map that describes it (cartography) and finally to the image that represents, contemplates and examines it (art, film). Astronomical images abound in Nostalgia, views of the earth from space and sketches by architect Miguel Lawner, who memorized the plans of the Dawson Island concentration camp while he was being held there in order to draw them and meticulously reconstructed them once he was set free.

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Still from The Pearl Button (2015) by Patricio Guzmán
Still from The Pearl Button (2015) by Patricio Guzmán

In The Pearl Button, there is also a profusion of satellite images of the south of Chile, but one sequence in particular stands out. On the floor of a film studio, artist Emma Malig and an assistant arrange an endless stack of pale blue cards; on top of them, they unfold an enormous roll of thick, wrinkled, papyrus-like paper in the shape of Chile’s territory. The objective, Guzmán explains in his narration, is to view “a complete image of my country.”

The delicate substance of the earth’s crust, surrounded by the sea, and unfolded in the artificial space of a film set, condenses the conceptual abstraction achieved in the film. In the end, what image can film offer of a landscape that is at once geography, native land, home and an archive for the secrets of the world?

Clearly, it is impossible to contain all of this in a single image, but perhaps it can indeed fit into an ambitious and moving film such as this.


Translated by Phillip Penix-Tadsen.