Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 24, 2015

The Pearl Button; Bering: Balance and Resistance

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm

Opening yesterday at the IFC Center in New York, Patricio Guzman’s “The Pearl Button” is my pick for best documentary of 2015 and very possibly the best I have seen in the past decade. Guzman, a Chilean born in 1941, is best known for his documentaries about the Allende period, including “The Battle of Chile” that I saw forty years ago when it came out and the 2004 “Salvador Allende” that I reviewed eight years ago. Since my view of the director’s work was informed by these newsreel-like films, I was not nearly prepared for the astonishing experience of a work of art that combined politics and art and that can be likened to Eduardo Galeano at his best. Narrated by Guzman, “The Pearl Button” is a meditation on the ontological mystery of water, the extinction of the Patagonian Indians who had a unique connection to the ocean, and the persecution of Allende’s supporters whose corpses were often dropped by helicopter into the very waters of the Pacific Ocean that the indigenous peoples regarded as essential to their being.

The eponymous pearl button is a reference to Jemmy Button, as the British colonizers called him. He was a Patagonian Indian that Captain Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle—the same ship that Charles Darwin sailed on–brought back to England in 1830 under circumstances typical of the unequal power relations of the day and that continue now. When the natives stole one of Fitzroy’s boats, he took a group hostage. Jemmy’s price was that of a single mother of pearl button. Christianized forcefully, dressed in respectable garments (his people preferred to walk about unclothed with their bodies painted), and taught English, he was nothing more than a kind of curiosity for the British to gawk at. Once he returned home, he discarded their clothing and sought to be reintegrated with the Yámana people who never quite accepted him. Being lost between two worlds, as we shall see in the discussion of another film below, is generally the fate of indigenous peoples today unfortunately.

When Guzman learned that the Chilean government had commissioned a task force to retrieve the bodies of Pinochet’s victims, he went along to film their work. As was the custom, Pinochet’s goons tied the corpse to a six-foot section of rail to weigh it down in the Pacific. On one dive, the cops retrieved such a rail but the corpse had washed away long ago. The only thing remaining was a shred of the victim’s clothing and a single mother-of-pearl button.

As a kind of prelude to these stories, Guzman explores the significance of water—a part of nature that it is all too easy to take for granted. It turns out that if had not been for the landing of a comet on earth quite by accident billions of years ago, the oceans might not have come into being. The director interviews a number of scientists who appear to be on the same political and artistic wavelength as him. They explain that water permeates everything we see and touch, including our own bodies, the soil, the sky, and the food we eat. Citing scientist Thedor Schwenk who founded the Institute of Flow,a research center on water, Guzman notes that “…the act of thinking resembles water due to its capacity to adapt to everything. The law of thought is the same as that of water, always ready to adapt itself to everything”.

Such observations are accompanied by the stunning images of the heavens, the oceans and the earth as only a gifted director could summon. His words, spoken slowly and clearly in the tone of a seer, the film score and the images combine to both educate and inspire.

The high points of the film consist of a group of elderly indigenous survivals of the genocide including Gabriela Paterito who speaks in her native tongue. They believe that there were eight thousand Patagonian natives in the 18th century with only twenty surviving including Paterito who is described in the press notes:

Gabriela was born near an island called “Calao”, in the Picton fjord. She is about 73 years old. She learnt to row and dive under water when she was just six years old. Gabriela travelled hundreds of miles in a canoe, from Punta Arenas to the Gulf of Penas together with her family. She’s the last descendant of the kawéskar ethnic group, able to recount her life and that of her family with total lucidity and precision. Thanks to her son, Juan Carlos Tonko, who has brought Gabriela’s life into the public eye, it is no longer one of anonymity. She lives in Puerto Eden and earns a living making handicraft. During the filming we met other of her fellow countrymen, Alfredo Renchi, Francisco González and Yolanda Mesier.

The connection between the Indians of Patagonia and the socialists in Chile could not be more obvious. We learn from Guzman that among the accomplishments of Allende was a kind of affirmative action for indigenous peoples, a policy that must have angered a ruling class that like those throughout the Americas considered them to be less than human. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.”

Although unfortunately I am a bit late on this, Lourdes Grobet’s “Bering, Balance and Resistance” that premiered this morning at the Margaret Mead film festival at the Museum of Natural History, is a perfect companion piece to “The Pearl Button”. If it ever shows up in your neck of the woods or on television, grab it since it is very much in the tradition of Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North” but like many of the films about Inuit today is much closer to the truth.

The film documents the daily existence of the people who live on the Little and Big Diomede Islands who have been there for more than ten thousand years. Modern civilization so to speak has separated them, however. Little Diomede is American territory and Big Diomede is Russian. If Sarah Palin lived in Little Diomede, her comment about being able to see Russia would be true.

Interestingly, the native peoples refer to themselves as Eskimos, not Inuit, thus showing a certain indifference to political correctness. That being said, they are completely committed to preserving their traditions that are under assault from capitalist society. One man in his forties observes that when they had native dances in the local assembly hall in the past, you could not find a seat. Today the hall is half-empty for such events. Children do not speak their native tongue, watch television addictively, eat canned food and talk about relocating to Nome where assimilation can be consummated.

There are elders who are intent on preserving what they call their “subsistence” way of life. They are dubious about Christianity even though that is the only religion in both islands, something that must be reassuring to both the Russian and American yahoos who see eye-to-eye on the church. Those old enough to have lived before “civilization” settled in report that in the old days there was no money. They went out on hunts together and shared what they killed. They made everything they needed and exchanged fur or carvings for manufactured essentials such as knives or guns. You can see a couple of men in their thirties, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, going through the steps of a hunting dance that was probably performed ten thousand years ago.

Their way of life and that of the Patagonians is what Marx called primitive communism. In order to assimilate hunting and gathering societies into bourgeois society, force is necessary as well as ideological pressure. The tragedy of the Inuit, who were separated by dint of the conventions of the modern state system, is that they are caught between two worlds.

But so are we in a very real sense. Our fate is to live in a system based on commodity production that is undermining our very existence as I pointed out yesterday in my review of “Racing Extinction”. The goal is the same as it was when Engels wrote “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”: to unite the disdain for money that most people in Grobet’s film share with the modern productive forces that capitalism has forged.

2 Comments »

  1. Thank you for this review and insight. Being a son of a Chilean immigrant, I have always had an interest in Patricio Guzman’s films since I discovered them 15 years ago.

    Comment by Goose — October 25, 2015 @ 2:11 am

  2. In the ‘Monde’ today, Oct.27, Jacques Mandelbaum agrees with you that Guzman’s ‘Le
    Bouton de nacre’ is a masterpiece. He has a paragraph on exile that, roughly, reads like this:

    “Who could say, without having experienced it in his flesh, what exile feels like? This tearing apart of yourself, this mutilation that prevents you from living in the place you were born, the need to learn how to live forever away from your home. This violent break can, all the same, end in serenity: a going beyond nationalism, discovering yourself in relation to others, a celebration of life as many-voiced and universal. Judging by his films we can presume that Patricio Guzman has entered this serene realm.”

    Comment by Peter Byrne — October 27, 2015 @ 10:43 am


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