In The Pearl Button, Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán draws parallels between the colonial genocide against Patagonia’s indigenous population and the political violence of the Pinochet dictatorship.

Decolonisation is a term that has become increasingly popular within scholarly and activist circles, yet we are not always well positioned to understand the histories of violent dispossession and the legacies of disappearance that were created by the colonial condition. The recent film The Pearl Button (2015), directed by Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, offers an entrancing vision of the violence that has long interconnected European empires with colonialism in South America. By moving into the territories of Patagonia and deeper into the British colonial archive, Guzmán addresses the genocide of indigenous peoples and the tragic reality of cultural disappearance. Guzmán’s perspective in the film provides a haunting insight into the colonial disciplinary society that the British organised in Tierra del Fuego during the 19th century, as well as its link to violence inflicted later under the Pinochet dictatorship.

The Chilean historian Mateo Martinic Beros carried out one of the earliest and most thorough investigations to date of the occupation of Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago colonised first by the Swedish quest for territory and then by British military expeditions. In 1898, following the doctrine of Social Darwinism, British colonisers formed the Society for Exploitation of Tierra del Fuego. Its aim was to either kill, capture or relocate indigenous peoples in order to resettle the space by dedicating large estancias (ranches) to sheep herding.

British brutality

Martinic Beros argues that nationalist historians evade the Chilean state’s complicity in using sheepherding colonisation as a strategy of indigenous genocide and dispossession. By confronting photographs of British militia ‘man hunts’ against the native Ona people, and indigenous religious conversion by Protestant and Catholic missionaries, we are forced to consider the colonial basis for ongoing patterns of violence and war. British settler violence in Tierra del Fuego resulted in the near extermination of three Patagonian indigenous groups, the Ona (Selk’nam), the Haush and the Yámana.

Rather than focus exclusively on British genocidal violence, Guzmán also considers the complexity of Patagonian local knowledges, which revolve around the ocean, the sky and the cosmos as another way of inhabiting the planet. By decolonising ‘the interview’, Guzmán presents several accounts from Ona survivors, not only about their knowledge with respects to British occupation, but also in relation to canoe building techniques, artisanal fishing practices and recalling the Ona language as an exercise of cultural memory. Lifting up these submerged perspectives (as I call them in my forthcoming book The Extractive Zone) offers new ways to recognise the profound erasures conducted by colonial powers.

Through the British colonial photographic archive of occupation, we see dozens of images of whitened earth painted on Ona bodies that reflect and embody the starlight above. In a series of astonishing scenes that move between blue ice, a moving sea, a darkened night and images of indigenous death, Guzmán consistently returns to the Tierra del Fuego indigenous cultural belief in a fundamental lack of division between sea and sky, humans and nature, earth and cosmos.  As viewers, our complicity is called into question. Guzmán asks, ‘What are we bearing witness to? What are we really seeing?’

In a long sequence that draws from historical footage of the British arrival in Patagonia in 1883, Guzman declares: ‘They arrived. The colonists, the gold diggers, the military, the police, the sheepherders, the Catholic missionaries. After living centuries with the water and the stars, the indigenous suffered an eclipse of their world.’

The documentary then focuses on visual footage of Chilean and British officials rounding up groups of indigenous peoples. According to Guzmán, ‘the Chilean government supported the British and declared that Native Peoples were corrupt, sheep thieves and barbaric. Many found refuge in Dawson Island, where the central mission was stationed. They took their language, their beliefs, and their customs.’ While narrating the role of religion in Patagonia’s colonisation, the viewer is privy to images of indigenous women weaving within the mission system, while nuns oversee their labour. In front of the nuns, a row of indigenous girls wear brown protestant costumes. The scene takes on increasingly terrifying significance, highlighting the colonial disciplinary hierarchies that actively worked to erase the cultural traditions of Ona women and girls.

A colonial story

The title of the film, El Boton de Nacar (The Pearl Button), is taken from the colonial story of Jemmy Button, a ‘Fuege’ indigenous subject who was taken from Tierra del Fuego in 1830 by Robert Fitzroy, captain of the HMS Beagle. At the age of 12, Jemmy Button was sold, alongside three other indigenous captives, for the price of a pearl button. Three years after this ‘civilising’ trip to England, he returned home charged with the British expansionist mission of bringing light to Tierra del Fuego. Within the numerous colonial stories about him, Jemmy Button has been alternatively represented as a race traitor, a trickster figure and a celebrated and exceptional native figure. Guzmán contemplates the voyage to Europe and Jemmy Button’s return to Tierra del Fuego as an ambassador of the British colonial project as one full of colonial hauntings that invoke the legacies of slavery, as well as the settler colonial project.

The submerged perspective here is both literal and figurative in that Guzmán chases the pearl button as material evidence of the trade of Jemmy Button to the British military forces, foreshadowing the finding of a pearl button, which belonged to a supporter of overthrown president Salvador Allende, at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean a century later. By focusing the narrative on two pearl buttons – the first which symbolises the colonial genocidal violence against Tierra del Fuego’s original inhabitants and the second political violence against dissident subjects of US imperialism in Chile – Guzmán demonstrates how submerged histories of disappearance can reveal a longer arc of colonial knowledge and power.

In an important sequence with survivors of Pinochet’s repression in Chile, Guzmán narrates the history of Dawson Island as the site where ‘subversive[s]’ were detained during the 1970s, as well as the earlier imprisonment of Tierra del Fuego’s indigenous subjects during British colonisation. Indigenous Onas were slaughtered on their own territories or forcibly moved to the island, an isolated geography that was later used as the site of imprisonment for opponents of Pinochet’s regime. Dawson Island functions in the nation’s historical memory as a site of indigenous disappearance and military occupation for those deemed subhuman.

From the genocidal history of the Ona to the repurposing of Dawson Island by the Pinochet regime, the film’s landscapes are filled with mnemonic echoes of colonial and modern violence. The haunting views of the Pacific recall both the history of disappeared peoples of Tierra del Fuego and the modern history of disappearance under Pinochet. In both cases, Guzmán lingers on the vitality of oceanic space as a connector of fragmented landmass and fragmented histories as a repository of historical witness and as a living archive that testifies silently to lost knowledge.

Through focusing on the last four known survivors of the Ona people, who continue to build seafaring canoes, speak the language of their ancestors and connect to the ocean as a geography of memory, Guzmán shows how submerged perspectives decolonise what has been banished from the disciplinary colonial project. The documentary illustrates that by focusing on the disappeared knowledge forms, we can better see our own location and our own complicity with histories that have been written through the colonial gaze.

Guzmán reveals how decolonisation must extend beyond a liberal view that wants to alleviate injustice but fails to confront the deep and enduring historical roots of colonial violence. Radical decolonisation, on the other hand, engages with the historical truths of indigenous genocide and acknowledges that we continue to live in a world which enacts violence against peoples of colour and migrants. By uncovering histories such as the British colonial experience in Patagonia Chile, we can reframe our understanding of disappearance and embrace the important work of making present indigenous cultural memory.

This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue three (Winter 2016/17)