Stories, empathy and THE PEARL BUTTON [Patricio Guzman, 2015]


The poetry of Patrico Guzman’s latest cinematic essay – THE PEARL BUTTON – reminds me of Grant Gee’s superb film PATIENCE (AFTER SEBALD), itself about W.G. Sebald’s book THE RINGS OF SATURN.

The film retraces a walk through Suffolk taken by the book’s author, and mirrors the discursive nature of the narrative in its own approach to the journey – a conscious use of digression, repetition, aural/visual layering, and the discovery of chance connections which find unexpected significance.

A different kind of wandering journey –  despite it’s apparent waywardness, a carefully planned one –  is described in another book, which I recently finished: THE FARAWAY NEARBY by Rebecca Solnit.  It’s a journey via tales: trying to understand and come to terms with the troubled relationship with her mother, Solnit explores stories and incidents, labyrinthine in their metaphorical interconnections, taking in subjects as disparate as Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, leprosy, Antarctica, Napoleon, and decaying apricots.

The importance of stories has cropped up before in this blog; Solnit describes them as:-

…compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story. Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.

However, we must also be wary:-

We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.

Grant Gee’s film, and the books by Sebald and Solnit, lead me back to THE PEARL BUTTON. Guzman’s beautiful language of film navigates its path via metaphorical connections that stimulate the intellect, touch our emotions, and unlock our imaginations.  It is the cinema of engagement, what Mark Cousins calls the ’empathy machine’.

As Solnit writes:-

Kindness, compassion, generosity are often talked about as though they’re purely emotional virtues, but they are also and maybe first of all imaginative ones. You see someone get hurt…and you feel for them. You take the information your senses deliver and interpret it, often in terms of your own experience, until it becomes vivid to you. Or you work harder and study them to imagine the events you don’t witness, the suffering that is not on the surface. It’s easier to imagine the experience of people most like you and nearest you—your best friend, the person who just slipped on the ice. Through imagination and representations—films, printed stories, secondhand accounts—you travel into the lives of people far away. This imaginative entering into is best at the particular, since you can imagine being the starving child but not the region of a million starving people. Sometimes, though, one person’s story becomes the point of entry to larger territories.

Guzman, with his gentle, soft-voiced narration (surely the Chilean equivalent of the mellow toned voice-overs of Mark Cousins), together with striking imagery and sound design, weaves together a cinematic poem that opens our minds to new stories and possibilities.

The central question of THE PEAL BUTTON (as in his other films) is how do we connect with our past and face up to what happens.  As light was the dominant metaphor in his previous film – NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT – so water is the central images of THE PEARL BUTTON.  The film begins with a tiny drop of 3,000 year old water trapped in a block of quarz, and then moves to the stars and atmosphere, and the seas and rivers around Chile.  Water holds secrets but also reveals the past – as when the drowned body of one of the disappeared from the Pinochet regime is discovered.  Water links other stories: the indigenous peoples whose lives were so bound up with the rivers and sea; the tale of Jemmy Button who was taken to Europe to be ‘civilised’; the horrors of the Pinochet era; and the personal loss of Guzman’s brother who was swept out to sea.

The accumulation of poetic associations is incredibly moving.  Hearing the almost lost spoken language of the indigenous peoples becomes as evocative and relevant as a Bach partita.  Loss and pain and joy become so close you can touch them.

At one point, a large thin map of Chile is rolled out on the floor.  The camera is only able to capture it as a whole from a high vantage point directly above.  Guzman remembers that he never saw a complete map of his country is school – it was so long it had to be split up into regions.  The film’s poetry helps to bring together some of the Chile’s historical and cultural fragments, to speculate on broad themes without reducing the complexity to a trite simplicity.  It offers a different narrative.

It asks us to think and feel, to expand our imaginations, and to find empathy.




The galleries echo with call and response, from war to war, place to place. The sounds recall last breaths and death rattles, slow exhalations. As much as distant wars, fallen armies and martial music, it is hard not to think of other musics, other times. It is impossible not to think of the soaring, melancholy sounds created by Miles Davis and Albert Ayler. A bass ophicleide from Munich recalls the slurs and growls of the trombonist Roswell Rudd.

Adrian Searle’s dramatic description of Susan Philipsz’s WAR DAMAGED MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS at the Tate Britain vividly expresses the profound effect this installation can have on the visitor.

Searle again:

Sounds are calling down the 86m-long Duveen Gallery at Tate Britain, from 14 speakers mounted high on the walls. Otherwise, the space is empty.

You can’t predict which speaker will next come to life with plangent, mournful music. Each of the speakers plays fragments of the Last Post, performed on brass and woodwind instruments all mangled by war. Sometimes it’s a sharp bugle note, sometimes a sonorous gasp, sometimes a noise like wind in a drainpipe.

It was not the juxtaposition of sounds with damaged relics of war which initially so moved me and drew me back time after time, but the mournful quality of those sounds interacting with that vast space.  It seemed that they gave the space a strange enveloping physical presence that was a paradoxical weightless substance.

I could never stand still in that long, high domed gallery.  I had to walk around, hearing and feeling the sounds – mostly single notes; occasionally two notes blending in an unexpected harmony – as they were played from random speakers, points near and far.  The sounds both defined the space, filled it, and the space gave them life.

The backstory of the instruments creating the sounds enriches and intensifies the melancholy mood of the piece.  The notes become like ghostly visitations from the past.

Dr Linda Schädler conveys some of the effect of Philipsz’s work in her exhibition essay:

She is able to evoke a feeling for the past. It is a feeling of mourning for the lost ones triggered by a rearranged song composed in the eighteenth century and played with instruments that are historical remnants, or rather: indexical traces of the past. In Philipsz’ work, the sound clearly becomes an echo not only of a bygone age but also of the feelings of a past epoque… Without hearing words or explanations, the spectator is touched and moved by the sheer presence of the hesitant and vulnerable tones. Nevertheless, there is not only an audible frame of reference to the belligerent past. We can hear the tones in the here and now of the Duveen Galleries – a place with a tragic past too. The Duveen Galleries suffered severe damage during the Second World War, when a bomb hit the building and brought down the gallery roof in 1940.

Space is clearly a major inspiration for the artist as Rhiannon Starr explains:

As a child, Philipsz sang in a local Catholic choir with her sisters, and as a teenager she joined a militant-socialist African choir. However, Philipsz doesn’t read or write music, never having undertaken formal training. Instead, she studied sculpture at the University of Dundee and then at the University of Ulster in Belfast. ‘I was making sculptures that explored inner body space,’ Philipsz says. This fostered an interest in the physicality of singing, such as the way the diaphragm expels breath from the lungs. ‘I also began to think about the physicality of projecting my voice out into a space and filling that space with sound,’ she explains.

I cannot recommend this exhibition highly enough.  Unfortunately it ends on 3 April, but if you are in the vicinity, make sure you catch it.

Here is a short video taken by a visitor:

Here is Philipsz talking about a very similar but smaller project:-

Further details about the exhibition are here.  It was commissioned by 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions.