In 82 minutes, The Pearl Button propels us to the world's largest archipelago, into the cosmos, onto the ocean and back in time. Patricio Guzmán delivers a documentary about water with a deep sense of anthropology, history, science, poetry and personal experience. The director shows no fear of politics either. It is easily one of the films of the year.
The Pearl Button has to be seen in conjunction with Nostalgia for the Light, Guzmán's previous film. They stand separately, yet belong together - Guzmán has described them as a diptych. The attention has shifted from the dry deserts in the North of Chile to the endless archipelago of Western Patagonia in the South, but the approach remains the same. The director presents a coherent thought process across a variety of subjects and draws connections between them. Like the water that serves as the recurrent theme, the structure is loose and fluid. In one section, he talks to the last survivors of an Indian tribe. The water has been a home to these people and their canoes for millennia. The sea is a source of life, but there are also darker sides to the depths of the oceans. After Pinochet's coup d'état in 1973, an event that haunts Chile until today, the water became a cemetery. Thousands of bodies were dumped in the aftermath.
Guzmán does much more to present us with information. His creative choices enter the domain of the metaphysical. The decision to interview the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita for instance is a fascinating one. There is no obvious reason to include him, but he brings up some unusual ideas. The director uses cinema to share a different conception of history. Time, is aside from water, the key to understanding the film. For Guzmán, time is not necessarily linear or even singular. An Indian travelling to England in the 19th century is not only a journey across space; it is also a form of time travel.
The obvious point of comparison are the documentaries of Werner Herzog, but The Pearl Button is altogether more positive and optimistic. Whereas the Bavarian would surely condemn the government's treatment of the native population as an incurable symptom of the human condition, Guzmán looks further and begins to imagines a different planet. Here, the Indians were allowed to live in peace. The Pearl Button is an extraordinary piece of work, which manages to reduce the distance between past and present as well as heaven and earth.