Veteran Chilean doc-maker Patricio Guzman follows ‘Nostalgia for the Light’, which thoughtfully connected the disappearances of political opponents under General Pinochet with our search for knowledge in the vast expanses of the desert and outer space, with another philosophical and cosmic historical documentary. Here he deftly makes his way from musings on the nature of water on Earth and elsewhere to memories of the over 1,000 disappeared Chileans whose bodies were cruelly dropped from planes into the ocean during Pinochet’s regime in the 1970s and 1980s.
En route, Guzman also considers the fate of the now dispersed water nomads of Western Patagonia in southern Chile. For centuries these isolated people lived by traversing remote waterways and open seas in hollowed-out trees before colonialism and modernisation wiped them out. It’s here that Guzman’s film gets its name: Jemmy Button was the nickname given to one young nomad who was taken back to nineteenth-century London by British traders, turned into ‘a gentleman’ and then later returned to the region of his birth, neither belonging to one culture or the other.
Later in the film, Guzman recalls how divers recently set out to look for the railway sleepers to which the disappeared under Pinochet were tied, already dead, before being dumped in a watery grave. One diver found a decaying sleeper, human remains long gone, but with a shiny white button now embedded in its rust. It’s links such as these – mysterious yet meaningful – that make Guzman’s film, always full of wonder and imagination, so worthwhile. The connections might be a little more strained and diffuse than in ‘Nostalgia for the Light’, but their cumulative power is strong nonetheless.