From the observational cinema of Battle of Chile to the poetic montage of his latest films, Patricio Guzmán has had a very unique journey through the language of documentary filmmaking. However, it is with The Pearl Button that the Chilean master documentary filmmaker achieves a climactic point. While the art of storytelling in his last feature Nostalgia for the Light and its breathtaking juxtaposition of narratives won Guzmán international praise, The Pearl Button takes one step further and allows for a pure poetic force to link its stories, a noble experience which transcends the traditional borders between fiction and documentary cinema. The Pearl Button won Guzmán the 65th Berlinale Silver Bear for best screenplay even while in competition with great fictional films. For more about the film, read Daniel Kasman's coverage of it from Berlin.
While focusing on The Pearl Button, the following conversation, with which I was assisted by Bahman Tavoosi, addresses the crucial elements of Guzmán’s cinema, including his method of storytelling.
NOTEBOOK: What makes me very interested in your work is that you give a new sense and meaning to concepts and words. For example, you make certain connections between astrology and politics in Nostalgia for the Light and in this film you show the connection between water and politics. Following this connection, a new meaning is attributed to the word and a new sense emerges from it. You’re like a philosopher in a sense, creating new meanings of the word. Do you have anything to say about this process?
PATRICIO GUZMÁN: I’m not an intellectual like you. I am moved more by intuition than by intellect and I still don’t know how the “button” came to be conceived in me.I had an interest in getting to know the south of Chile,which is a fascinating space. Water and land are mixed together in the south, yet no one lives there; it’s very solitary. It is in that space that the film was born. I wasn’t sure if I should look for the people who used to live there or if I should return to Santiago and begin to study further, so I set out to find the prettiest location but I failed. I went back to Santiago and was doing more research on the ocean when I found the story of Jimmy Baton as well as the story of the people who Pinochet had thrown into the ocean and from those two points I started to invent this new fable. Then I returned to Paris and continued thinking about it, doing research on the subject and reading about it. I found several English books and one German philosopher of the water whose works were very inspiring to me but ithas nothing to do with the film. He’s an extraordinary man.He discovered the relationship between water and the mind, arguing that the way that water moves is the same way as thoughts move in the mind. I found it to genius. It’s completely right. He also discovered that some of the elements of the body contain water. For example, the heart moves between two separate currents of water within the body so all of the organs in our chest are kind of located in archipelagos.That rally inspired me because it liberated me in a way and allowed me to speak of both celestial bodies and human bodies and create that connection.
NOTEBOOK: Your movie is very flowing in the sense that it easily passes through historical, personal, and collective borders. One precise border that the movie passes through is the one between documentary and fiction thanks to the strong force of poetry in the film. What do you think about the duality of fiction and documentary?
GUZMÁN: There are works of fiction that have documentary element to them that are very interesting and important. In my case, I master more the documentary language and I think that documentary allows more reflection on the world than fiction does. It’s a sort of essay writing. It’s a way of understanding who we are and what is our reality. This is why I like this genre.
NOTEBOOK: There is a tension between utopia and dystopia in your work in the sense that the form of your work is very spectacular and even fantastic. However, what it contains is always very dark and tragic.
GUZMÁN: I think that sadness is also very aesthetic. Beauty is found in both joy and sadness.Beauty is everywhere, so making a film of something sad doesn’t mean that I’m making a film of something that is sinister or dark. It’s the opposite.
NOTEBOOK: Marquez once said that sometimes when you write a novel it is as if you randomly found a single little button and then began making a whole suit or a costume based on that. Sometimes it’s the opposite and you actually have the whole suit but then you have to design the small buttons for it. What you do in your cinema seems like the first method where you find one button and then project the entire history of the world onto it. What was that button from which the The Pearl Button began? Was it Jemmy Button or water or something else in particular?
GUZMÁN: I found the button in a museum in Santiago where there’s a rail from the railway with a button encrusted in it. That left me completely astonished and I started to study why it was there. That’s how I stumbled upon the story of the woman who was drowned by Pinochet. Then I went to the south to study the story of the natives because I definitely wanted to make a movie about water. On the other hand, I was interested in the button on the rail because it was found in the water. Water was the element that brought everything together.
NOTEBOOK: In Nostalgia for the Light there are two essential women as the protagonists but there is no central character in The Pearl Button. Why did you proceed with the story in this way?
GUZMÁN: Perhaps people from the south speak less than people from the north.In the south nobody talks.There’s a lot of silence.It’s very hard to find a character so I started to take on a bigger role and I’m the narrator of the film here. What you say is interesting. This is a difference between a film born in the north and a film born in the south. I think that in the south it’s the rain that makes people stop speaking so much.They’re very quiet.The natives speak more.
NOTEBOOK: As the movie argues, Jemmy Button was exiled in his own country because he had lost the language. Then in your interviews with natives you asked them to speak with their language. The Arab poet Mahmoud Darwish once told Jean-Luc Godard that a nation without language or historical narrative is dead and defeated. What do you think of the natives in Chile in regards to this? Are they defeated because of that lack of historical narrative and language?
GUZMÁN: Exactly, but the ones that are in the extreme south all died, while the Mapuches, who were a little further north, survived and are still perfectly alive because they understand the Spanish language and can go between both. And Jimmy Button is probably the most tragic case in the south because he forgot his language in London and when he returned he didn’t have a language. He was nobody.
NOTEBOOK: Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button both talk about torture and what happened during the Pinochet regime. Given this, from a political perspective, how do you think that The Pearl Button is different from Nostalgia for the Light? What other political dimensions did you try to capture in this new film?
GUZMÁN: Politically, there’s an important issue discussed here—the cruel and horrible extermination of the natives in the south. Mercenaries shot them with rifles as if they were dogs. Then, on the other hand, the movie talks about the 1,400 people that Pinochet threw into the ocean, which was a horrible injustice. So in that sense, yes, the movie is completely political. There are many images, many metaphors. But the fundamental facts are those two.
NOTEBOOK: In the film your poet friend says that in order for the living to continue living the dead need to finish dying. The dead need to be returned to the living so the living can grieve and can go through the mourning process. Freud also said that the living need to mourn the dead or else their grief will develop into melancholia. Ariel Dorfman commented that you can never bury the dead deep enough; they will always return just like the return of a ghost. It seems that just like the women in Nostalgia for the Light you keep going back to the subject of the dead throughout your career. Is this perhaps representative of a certain kind of therapy, such as the stage that Chile as a country and society needs to go through so that the dead finally finish dying?
GUZMÁN: Your question is very interesting but it contains the answer.You’re already convinced of something and I agree with that.I think that the dead are always among us here. In Chile there are many so after time has gone by it begins to decant. Then the memory begins to vanish.However, this has not happened yet in Chile.It’s tangible; you can touch it with your hands.
NOTEBOOK: During a conversation with a Chilean friend I was told that a lot of contradictions have not yet been resolved in Chile. Today you might walk on the street and see a perpetrator from the Pinochet regime walking in front of you. Do you have any reflection on this? Can you describe the stage at which Chilean society is today?
GUZMÁN: Because I live abroad I can’t really be very detailed about it, but everything that you said exists. There are torturers walking the streets. There are widows who still have not even found one fiber of their spouse’s body. The Chilean constitution still represents many negative aspects in democracy. There’s a lack of education about the military coup, or in the matter of the actual history curriculum. The military still steers the country and they have no right to do it. So it’s a country under construction right now but from the outside it looks perfect: it has big skyscrapers, big boulevards, modernization, modern cars, etc. Scratch the surface and it’s a disaster, especially outside of the city. Because Santiago is a modern city, it’s like looking out the window here but when you leave the city then everything is destroyed. There’s a lot of misery, a tremendous amount, more than before. So it’s a country that still has to do a lot of work but the brand, the Chilean image from outside is completely different. There are investors, there are projects, there is money coming in, and it’s all false.