The Pearl Button, a new film by Patrizio Guzmán. This followed on from his previous film Nostalgia for the Light which meditated and explored our relationship to the stars from the point of view (largely) of Chile. In the Chilean desert, the driest place on earth, there is a huge observatory called Atacama. [For the record there are several large observatories in Chile, for star-gazers it is Heaven brought to Earth]. According to the new film, all the water on the planet arrived on earth in a collision with a comet. The Pearl Button is a meditation on water: its music, its abundance, its harvest and its people – once again from the point of view of Chile. Chile has the longest coastline in the world, the narrow strip of land which at its highest is the Andes Range drops swiftly to the Pacific Ocean, breaking at its edge into a myriad of small islands, threaded with navigable channels. Until the arrival of white settlers, there were five groups of indigenous people, all of them living on the water and diving for shellfish and the harvest of the sea.
The camera takes us along the coast, passed rivulets, waterfalls and the glaciers – the music, the natural sounds and the colour alone mean that everyone should try to see this magnificent visual poem to water, the life-sustaining liquid so essential to all life.
And there it stayed, a virtual Paradise until Captain Fitzroy (he, of The Beagle) made a cartographic study, so accurate that it was in use until very recently, which encouraged the influx of settlers after gold, precious metals and wood. Once the settlers arrived the story followed the same grim pattern as elsewhere – genocide on a huge scale, either by accident through European disease or deliberate through slaughter on a massive scale. Just as gamekeepers would get a bounty from moleskins and raptors, so hunters would get a bounty from human testicles, breasts and ears.
The indigenous people believe that in the afterlife they join the stars, and recently there has been discovered a huge nova that is mainly water, in fact it has more water than Earth – whimsically the film suggests that this is where they all are and where the 20 direct descendants will one day join them.
But the film and the water has another story and it is linked to Captain Robert Fitzroy. As an experiment in 1828, he took a native boy aged about 10 back to England and brought him up as a gentleman, for this pleasure he paid the family in pearl buttons. [The film doesn’t say this, but he actually took four natives, two boys, a girl and an adult.] Jemmy Button, as he was called, returned to Chile ten years later, a foreigner in his own land. He moved from the Stone Age into the Industrial Revolution and back, he saw the future and left it behind.
But the other story belongs in the 20th Century. Socialist President Salvador Allende began to return land to the indigenous people, but in a coup d’etat in 1973, probably backed by Richard Nixon, he was ousted from power and there began a civil war. Dissidents and families began to disappear, 800 secret prisons sprang up from nowhere and there was a reign of torture and political assassination unrivalled, almost, in recent times. Some of the “Disappeared” were dropped in the ocean fixed to metal railway track. One, and only one, had to be detached from her rail and strangled while in the air and her body floated to shore. After the Pinochet Junta failed and he was removed, investigators examined and identified her. Since then, hundreds of iron rails have been lifted from the sea bed – there are thought to be more than 12-1400 of them and with the accretion of sea life there remains little or nothing of the human that was once so brutally attached, but on one such recovery there is embedded a pearl button.
This film is astonishingly varied and beautiful, but at the point where the voice-over is describing these events we are looking at the twisted and wrecked remains of an ancient forest, dead trees corkscrewed by some elemental force into horrific grotesque shapes – it was more telling than archive footage, more emotionally charged and painful to see.
I am rather sad that Robert Fitzroy does not come well out of this story as he is something of a hero of mine and a loud cheer went up in my heart when Finnisterre was altered to Fitzroy in the Maritime Weather Forecast. To learn more read Harry Thompson‘s magnificent novel This Thing of Darkness.
The plain facts are that at some point in the night a young girl, Shruti aged fourteen, has her throat cut. This is discovered in the morning by her parents who were asleep at the time, the police are called and decide that the missing Nepalese servant must be to blame. Sometime later, when Shruti’s family are returning with her ashes, the murdered body of the servant is discovered on the roof.
The film presents various scenarios, based upon the police records, the media reports and the various verdicts that were arrived at by different parties, the local police who thought it must be the servant, the first CDI investigation who proved it was not the servant but his companions and the second CDI investigation which proved it was the parents.
In this film, and the Director, Meghna Guizar, was very clear in the Q&A afterwards, none of the scenarios add up to an entirely satisfactory conclusion. Firstly, the crime scene was hugely compromised. Family friends and media were allowed to come in and look even before forensics had finished, several essential clues were missed, including a vital hand print in blood on a wall at the roof level, which was photographed but then failed to be added to the case notes. It washed off in a subsequent rain storm. Then when the CDI were involved some of the methods of interrogation were suspect, though not illegal and were not permissible as evidence and finally at a critical juncture the Chief Director of the CDI was changed and the new Director, for reasons not examined in the film, started a whole new investigation that made a quite different scenario appear. At a conference it was concluded that insufficient proof had been provided by either side and therefore the case was closed. But at the Court level, the Judge declared that the case was not closed, the parents were guilty and were sentenced to prison for life.
Although there is a campaign to re-open the case, the backlog in the Appeal Court in India is thirty years.
It would not be fair to present a different version from that which the Director stoutly maintained in her Q&A, that this was a presentation of the facts and that she was not “directing” the audience view as to which scenario was right. However, her choice of actor slightly belies this. The fact that Irrfan Khan was chosen as the first CDI Investigating Officer suggests that his theory is the most probable. The local policeman was played as a buffoon (Gajraj Rao) and the second Director of the CDI had ‘villain’ written across his forehead.
This is a great film though and full of marvellous small miracles as well as petty and great injustices.