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Mixed Media: Films

film still from The Pearl Button

Old photographs of Chile’s original people form part of Patricio Guzmán’s beautiful sad elegy.

The Pearl Button

written and directed by Patricio Guzmán. (82 minutes)

Patricio Guzmán makes political films. You may have come across his three-part The Battle of Chile, made in the 1970s about the Allende socialist government and the bloody US-sponsored military coup that ended it. His later films are also ‘poetic’. They don’t have a straightforward narrative but link people, places, the natural world, even the cosmos, in unexpected and revealing ways.

The Pearl Button opens with shots of a water droplet imprisoned in a quartz crystal. Then we see water in its various states – solid, liquid, vapour – along the near 50,000-mile-long, deeply indented, island-crowded, labyrinthine shore of western Patagonia. In old monochrome photographs we see the region’s original people, some of them in body paint depicting the stars and the cosmos, standing naked in snow.

In the 1880s, there were about 8,000 people scattered around the islands, living off the ocean. Until they were hunted (hunters were paid per hacked-off testicle, breast and, for children, ear) or shifted onto reserves. One of them was sold for a pearl button, and toured to England. Today they have maybe 20 direct descendants – Chile is a civilized country with a history of massacres.

Guzman’s 2010 doc, Nostalgia for the Light, uncovered bodies of coup victims in the Atacama desert. This latest film finds evidence of people the Chilean air force dumped, dead and alive, into the ocean. It’s contemplative, sometimes chilling, metaphorical – with a starring role for water – and visionary. Unpretentiously, it connects objects, people, places, political states, states of matter. This is a beautiful and deeply sad elegy, for Chile and the disappeared.

Star Rating: ★★★★★

The Survivalist

written and directed by Stephen Fingleton.(104 minutes)

The Survivalist – post-industrial scarcity and social collapse in Fingleton’s debut.

As the opening titles roll, a dynamic graphic of growing, then catastrophically plunging, oil production sets the context – post-industrial scarcity, with population and social collapse. A nervy-eyed young man lives alone, hiding in the woods, growing cabbages and potatoes. He’s fit and muscular, a survivor, always carrying a shotgun, and has set up rusty jingling tin cans to warn him of any approach – intruders are buried in his vegetable plot.

But when a steady-eyed, long-white-haired woman appears with her teenage daughter, seeking food and offering, first of all vegetable seeds, then sex, he’s thrown. They stay the night. They insist, looking over his gun barrels, on food first, then sex. They stay the next night. And then the next. The mother, who’s looking for the opportunity to slit his throat, offers co-operation – that they all work together, extend the ‘farm’ to support them all. Does he trust them? He has a recurring dream of his brother’s death – killed, he says, because he naively trusted someone.

Fingleton’s debut is well set up, shot and acted, but not fully imagined. The vegetable plot is hardly big enough for a herb garden, and so many murderous crazies pass by there would be more bodies than beans to plant. Genre – westerns and horror films – displaces reality, and the last scene undermines it all.

Star Rating: ★★★

New Internationalist issue 490 magazine cover This article is from the March 2016 issue of New Internationalist.
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