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Close-up on “The Pearl Button”: Shifting Perspectives from the Human to the Non-Human

What stories do landscapes tell? How do landscapes tell stories?
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Patricio Guzmán's The Pearl Button (2015) is playing December 10, 2016 - January 8, 2017 in the United States.
For several years two questions have consumed me: What stories do landscapes tell? and How do landscapes tell these stories? My interest is in examining everyday sites—or their depictions in film and art—and searching for clues that tell about a region’s history. The environments we inhabit frequently, though often quietly, reveal how these places came to be as we know them. They betray the ethics that shaped and continue to shape the land. This is an alternative and useful tool for examining history, politics, and memory.
Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán’s poetic 2015 documentary The Pearl Button utilizes this approach to tell several Chilean histories, from the settling of Patagonia over 10,000 years ago to the CIA-backed Augusto Pinochet dictatorship that terrorized the nation for seventeen years. The Pearl Button travels from the dry Atacama Desert in the country’s north to the rugged Tierra del Fuego archipelago in the south, where the film lingers. It is that which is so scarce in the Atacama and so abundant in Patagonia that Guzmán employs to tell the history of Chile: water.
Though the country has one of the world’s longest coastlines in the world, Guzmán insists that the nation has no maritime tradition beyond that of Fuegians, indigenous people from Tierra del Fuego. He and historian Gabriel Salazar depict Chile as a virtual island, isolated from its neighbors by the Andes, with a distant relationship with the sea, which makes his selection of water as a narrative device all the more peculiar. But Guzmán demonstrates water’s importance throughout the millennia.
Conquest of indigenous people is Chile’s original sin and one cannot approach the country’s history without addressing the invasions, wars, and massacres that shaped the Spanish colony and then independent nation. The film takes its time introducing the genocide of the maritime Selk’nam people, and even longer for Pinochet’s regime. By the end of his introductory meditations, however, water, ancient indigenous history, and language seem necessary to fully comprehend these tragedies.
Colonization began in the early sixteenth century, but Guzmán concentrates on the genocide of the maritime Selk’nam people. Just barely beyond living memory, Chilean ranchers and foreign prospectors began eyeing Tierra del Fuego for their own purposes in the late nineteenth century. The Selk’nam were hunted like animals; génocidaires received cash payments for various body parts. Survivors took refuge on Dawson Island, but there they were subjected to the horrors of the Catholic mission system. Few Selk’nam survived and the island would soon become a concentration camp and torture house for political dissidents under the military dictatorship.
In the film, anthropologist Claudio Mercado mentions that many indigenous Americans believe that entities like stones and water are alive and possess spirits. This references the concept of animism, which has historically been a term with racist baggage used to imply that certain people were unable to distinguish between humans and non-humans. But in recent decades, scholars have taken a more serious look at this way of thinking. For anthropologist Philippe Descola, one of four basic ontologies is animism, with which both humans and non-humans share a similar type of selfhood. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro labels a related concept with the hefty name “perspectival multinaturalism.” He describes this idea as “part of an indigenous theory according to which different sorts of persons—human and non-human (animals, spirits, the dead, denizens of other cosmic layers, plants, occasionally even objects and artifacts)—apprehend reality from distinct points of view.”
The idea is not that water is identical to humans, but that it shares a similar type of selfhood or intentionality, even if it does not share a similar type of embodiment. This bestows social agency on anything with a spirit, meaning that the relationship between humans and nature is primarily social. There are other references to this thinking among Fuegians throughout The Pearl Button, and Guzmán himself employs something akin to an animist approach in the film. If water has personhood, The Pearl Button tells the history of Chile through this perspective. This is how water has seen the centuries unfold and how it relates to Chileans, or at least Guzmán’s best guess.
In his 2010 documentary, Nostalgia for the Light, Guzmán and archaeologist Lautaro Núñez discuss the difficulty Chileans have had with coming to terms with the dictatorship and genocide in their past. In that film, astronomy serves as an indirect route to accessing this history, five years later Guzmán would try again with water.
Guzmán has spent his life trying to understand and communicate Pinochet’s torturous regime. His near-legendary three-part documentary The Battle of Chile (1975-79) is a remarkable first-hand account of the coup d’état and early years of the dictatorship. Many consider this series to be among the best documentaries ever created, and yet it has not been enough for Guzmán. He has returned continually to the subject for forty years.
One of Descola’s four ontologies is “naturalism,” which is the modern European viewpoint with which only humans are considered persons. This is the foundation of western thought and might be a point of failure in apprehending the atrocities committed in Chile. Inspecting a landscape for clues about human culture is a naturalist approach, but shifting to the perspective of water and its social, if not political, relationship with the nation is something else.
Water has witnessed Chile’s earliest civilizations, its genocides, its tortures, and its rapes. Against its will, water has swallowed whole children, parents, lovers, and entire futures thrown into the sea from military helicopters. Water is a giver of life but also a mass grave, a concealer of crimes. Maybe it is our all-too-human perspectives that disguise truth and prevent comprehension. We talk often about the need to see things from another person’s perspective, but in the most difficult scenarios, when truth is fleeting or under siege, maybe that person need not be human.

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