Tuesday, 26 April 2016 15:19

Streams from the same water: a review of The Pearl Button

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Selknam Women, 1930
Selknam Women, 1930

Elliot O'Sullivan reviews the second film in Patricio Guzman's trilogy about Chilean culture and politics.

'We are all streams from the same water', says the narrator in Guzman's new film. There are moments of wide eyed wonder in The Pearl Button, and there is plenty of sorrow and heartbreak as well.

The opening 20 minutes are a profoundly meditative experience. The camera is mesmerising, shifting between stupefying panoramic shots and intensely detailed close-ups of the natural world. The cinematography dazzles throughout and Guzman experiments with natural light and sound to glorious effect.

There is also a surprisingly tense sequence in which the camera scrutinizes an ice formation, taking in its impossible shapes and textures as we hear it melting and creaking. It's remarkably simple, yet it leaves you dizzy as the camera pulls away. Guzman's nature worship and visual poetry also sets the stage beautifully for what is to follow.

As in previous films he is drawn to Chilean identity and connections with the natural environment. Here, he focuses on the declining population of the indigenous nomads of the Southern archipelago and their relationship with the sea and the cosmos. The proud and sorrowful people of the Kawésqar tribe tell of family voyages crossing the sea and the struggles they face in the modern world.

Guzman's lyrical narration hits all the right notes, as we're given a poignant account of the Selk'nam genocide. 'They didn't have cities, they didn't build monuments but they knew how to draw.' They like the Kawésqar saw their world turned upside down by the arrival of the colonists, who took their homes, their identities and ultimately their lives.

The final portion of the film is equally heartbreaking, but its connection to what came before feels forced. Guzman returns to the Pinochet regime, the subject of his previous documentaries, 'Nostalgia for the Light' and 'The Battle of Chile.' This time it is the concentration camp on Dawson's Island where political prisoners and dissidents were taken to die. The details are once again deeply affecting: thousands tied to rails and thrown in the sea to hide the barbaric crimes committed there. Men, women and children are lost without trace.

But Guzman's ardent cosmic worship and obvious political commitment has the occasional tendency to drift into spiritual pseudoscience and self-indulgence. The decision to include a man mimicking the sound of water didn't feel right, and the spiritual musings of the narration sometimes seemed out of place.

Similarly, compared to the wonderful simplicity and insight that preceded it, the title's significance feels contrived ,and the conclusion slightly muddled.

However these flaws do not detract from what is overall a profound and thought provoking experience, brought to life by Guzman's visceral and imaginative filmmaking. The Pearl Button is a testimony to indigenous populations and the natural world.

A Commentary on cultural genocide

20 minutes into the Pearl Button, Patricio Guzman's latest documentary, Gabriela Paterito is asked whether she feels Chilean. Without hesitation she answers, 'no, not at all. Kawésqar.'

Proud and sorrowful, Gabriela is one of the 16 remaining descendants of the ancient sea nomads originating from the Patagonia region of Southern Chile. Their original territories once stretched 500 miles across the Chilean archipelago from the Gulf de Penas to Tierra del Fuego. They along with many of Chile's southern Patagonian tribes have a deep and meaningful relationship with their environment. It is 'part of the family.'

Gabriela speaks fondly of long voyages spent in canoes crossing the sea to reach distant lands like Cape Horn, the southern most tip of the Chilean archipelago. The striking element of Pearl Button is its appreciation of indigenous people of Patagonia. It alludes to the fact the dominating 'modern' European culture in Chile has lost the connection they have to nature. 'Modern' Chile also appears to have little sympathy for the natives. Government restrictions prevent them using the sea as they once did because of the problems their small canoes pose for larger boats. The dominating culture dictates the laws and the indigenous people pay the price.

There has always been the temptation to view western 'civilized' culture as the end point of a line which began with native populations. Yet this neglects the fact that Western society has relied heavily on the knowledge and languages of indigenous people to facilitate research. In Southeast Asia, the medicinal properties of around 6500 species of fauna and flora has been noted by forest-dwelling healers. Quinine, aspirin and codeine, are among the common remedies owed to ethnobotanists aided and informed by indigenous peoples. The western world's inability to prevent and often cause cultural destruction to tribes like Gabriella's should dispel any ideas of superiority.

In May 1974 the Selk'nam, neighbours of the Kawésqar lost their last full-blooded member and have since been considered extinct. The Kawésqar and Selk'nam languages are critically endangered and likely to join the other 30 language families declared extinct since 1960. Gabriella remains the only true native speaker of Kawésqar and her culture is only passed down through the spoken word. Cultural and religious references are tied up in the language as the film maker illustrates when he asks her what the word for God is. She shakes her head, 'we don't have that word.'

Equally many of the indigenous languages offer greater scope for expression. The last known speaker of the Selk'nam language, Joubert Yanten Gomez commented that, “One precious thing, to me, about the language is its vocabulary of words for love. There are things you can’t say in Spanish.” Speaking to the BFI last year, Patricio Guzman felt it was almost deliberate that these languages are being lost. He implied they were reminders of a painful past and the atrocities they have endured.

Guzman's slow scanning camera, poetic and mystical narration builds a deep appreciation of the indigenous people's connection with the landscape. '[The Selk'nam] didn't have cities, they didn't build monuments but they could draw,' whispers the narration as the camera explores the body paintings of the tribe. The rich culture of art and songs, were intrinsically linked to their religious beliefs and their deep connection with the cosmos. They studied the sky and would join their ancestors there when they died. Our mythology is rich,” Joubert Gomez said. “Everything in our world has a voice. “We had a Paleolithic skill set yet a boundless imagination.
They were a tribe that could survive polar temperatures and the harshness of the Chilean archipelago but not the arrival of Jose Menéndez.

84 genetic lineages in the Americas have been lost since the colonization of the Americas. The Selk'nam genocide and destruction of many neighbouring tribes was instigated primarily by Menéndez, 'land owner' of Patagonia who arrived in Chile in 1868. He was granted thousands of hectares of natives’ land by the Chilean government to bring economic development to the south and establish reserves for native people. His monstrous sheep ranches extended into Selk’nam lands in Tierra del Fuego and he drove out the guanaco, the Selknam’s primary source of food and clothing.

Consequently the Selk'nam and other tribes were driven to find other food sources and they killed and ate Menéndez sheep, being unaware of the settlers' concept of property.The killing of all native 'savages' was then ordered by Menéndez with the support of the Chilean government. Many were shot and killed with others finding refuge at the Christian missionary on Dawson’s island. There most died from European diseases, stripped of their religion, their nomadic way of live and their territory which they held so dear.

Any remaining nomads were hunted for sport and Menéndez paid a pound sterling for testicles, breasts and ears given as proof. By numerous historical accounts the killing was overseen by a Scotsman, Alexander McLennen. Menéndez later gave him an expensive water because thanks to him, ‘there were no longer natives in Tierra del Fuego.’
Unfortunately the humiliation and atrocity does not end there. Between 1878 and 1900 with government backing, Selk'nam and Kawésqar people were paraded round European zoos as "The Savages from the Land of Fire,"attracting a half-million visitors in Paris. Many died from disease and mistreatment and few returned alive.

The cultural destruction and disappearance of the tribes in the Southern Chile archipelago has been centuries in the making. Across the world other indigenous populations and cultures are at risk. Governments often own tribal burial grounds and biodiverse indigenous territories are routinely exploited for natural resources. The Mayan populations of Central America as well as Kenyan Maasai groups are denied access to and have been evicted from ancestral territories.

Like the Selk'nam and the Kawésqar, indigenous religions and traditional practices are inevitably tied to the land and the cultural implications as well as the economic and political ones are devastating for these communities.

It is cultural genocide. Anne Chapman who studied the Selk'nam culture wrote in 1977, "With the destruction of the Selk'nam not only did we annihilate our fellow human beings, enemies of no one, but we also lost a part of our heritage forever."
Read 1790 times Last modified on Sunday, 22 May 2016 18:54
Elliott O'Sullivan

Elliot O'Sullivan is a linguist and Open University student.