By Christopher Small
The prestigious Chilean filmmaker answers some questions about “El Botón de Nacar“, the Silver Bear recipient in last year Berlinale.
Christopher Small: I just wanted to start by asking you about the first image of the film, the Quartz block from the Atacama desert. The water droplet inside—it’s a mysterious image. It appears only once and there’s nothing like it that comes afterward.
Patricio Guzmán: I don’t know where the idea to start with the Quartz comes from. It was just a way of introducing the film, some of my ideas.
Christopher Small: It strikes a particular tone for the movie while also seeming to come from another altogether, almost as if artefacts are bleeding over from [your last film] Nostalgia for the Light.
Patricio Guzmán: You’re right. It’s a connection I meant to make, between the two films.
Christopher Small: Do you see them as linked quite intimately?
Patricio Guzmán: Yes, it’s a diptych; between the desert and the ocean. And those two parts in turn are elements of what will become a trilogy.
Christopher Small: Have you planned the third section?
Patricio Guzmán: Somewhat. It’s about the Andes cordillera, which is in effect a wall that separates Chile from the rest of the planet.
Christopher Small: In this film [The Pearl Button] you speak briefly about the section of the Andes that disappears into the Pacific ocean, the archipelago where the Indigenous water nomads lived.
Patricio Guzmán: Yes, that was my intention there, to form this small relationship with the second and third film. Another way of thinking about the parts of this trilogy, or the two existing parts of the diptych, is that the first is about dry things and the other about liquids.
Christopher Small: The idea of the solid and the liquid separating these two—once you’ve amassed your preparatory materials, how do you go about deciding the linkages, the central ideas? To hunt actively for images or materials that direct back to these central subjects?
Patricio Guzmán: It doesn’t work like that. Not from the beginning. Deciding what will constitute each part comes much later.
Christopher Small: Is there something in the back of your head that pushes you in these particular directions, while filming or while combing archives?
Patricio Guzmán: There’s a climate of search that underpins the work, and I am trying to find, in this disordered country of Chile, some way to make sense of a great many disparate bits and pieces. The actual process of exploration can seem quite disordered, and in the process of making the film, one will comes across things that by themselves are treasures and others that seem quite disappointing. But the actual discovery process is arbitrary: one must be open to anything to come across worthwhile material. If you are too precise in your expectations you might not find something by serendipity. You can’t predetermine in any sense what the dialogues in the film are going to be, but at the same time you do invent dialogues and characters to pitch to producers, even if what actually happens bears little resemblance to these creations. Finding the people in the narrative—the characters [personajes]—is often the most difficult part of the whole process.
Christopher Small: If the aim of the production is to cast as wide a net as possible, to bring in as many diffuse elements as you can, is it in the editing that you become more reflective?
Patricio Guzmán: There are two processes happening: one is the responsible thinking happening at the end of the shooting—when you are reviewing what you have shot, making early decisions with the editor—and the other while you are out shooting. The second is almost an irresponsible process. That’s inevitable because one has gut feelings about situations, ideas, characters, places, and it’s obvious from the beginning that that idea one stumbles upon is going to be take on a significance in the film. Intuition is a form of desire; a desire of how one wants to make the film. It informs the structure that takes shape during both the shooting and the editing. You can make a film about something rather trivial, like an area of this space we are sat in now, but it assume, through this desire, a greater significance. The relationship between the size of the subject matter and the importance of a theme is not 1:1—you might have a clear idea in your own head about what it is that you want to focus on but because there’s so much freedom in this approach there are possibly infinite ways to make the film.
Christopher Small: How does that relate to the different production methods you’ve used to make your films over the years? I thought it was interesting that you have disavowed “reportage” as it relates to documentary, yet that plays such a central role in The Battle of Chile, particularly the first section…
There are specific moments in that film that resemble reporting, as with the early sections for Channel 13, but it was just a device I used to get closer to reality. It is never the bigger picture, never how the film is supposed to come across.
Christopher Small: In that same section there are also poetic elements, like the cameraman [Leonardo Henricksen] who records his own killing. They suggest a direction you seem to have taken with the later films.
Patricio Guzmán: Yes, you can see these things in The Battle of Chile but I didn’t plan that as a trajectory. That, perhaps, belongs to your way of looking at them and studying them. [Smiles]
Christopher Small: Well it appears to be present tense reportage but is actually its own form of nostalgia: the first image shows the Presidential palace on fire during the coup d’état.
Patricio Guzmán: That’s a fine interpretation but I never intend for the tone of these things to be retrospective, exactly. It’s quite common for people to think I have a system that I work from. This reflective edge arises more from the free and intuitive combination of ideas, and from natural my way of looking back on events. It’s not systematic, or at least it’s not intended to be. I don’t claim to explain Chile or its politics or the emotions of its people.
Christopher Small: So it’s just fortuitous when what you film suggests a larger metaphorical significance? I’m thinking of the bodies being thrown into the sea from Pinochet’s helicopters.
Patricio Guzmán: It’s not pure happenstance: both things involve water and I started with this in mind. I wanted to analyse the issue of Chile’s water, beginning with the idea of the comets bringing water to our planet in the Earth’s beginning, and with the ice sheets in the Antarctic. In one case, you have the bodies thrown from the helicopters and on the other you have the Indigenous people hunted by settlers—offering so much money for, say, an ear, a testicle…
Christopher Small: And your use of archival materials? One image I’m thinking of in particular appears as Gabriela is talking; it’s a woman diving in the nude for pearls. How do you find this footage, where does it fit into your process?
Patricio Guzmán: Oh, no, that’s not Gabriela. Before that, she speaks about how when she was younger her family lived on shellfish, and it’s simply there to illustrate her thinking. That footage was found during a French expedition to Patagonia, and on one of the islands there was a factory where they had previously been making whale oil, and they just happened upon this footage in the factory. Nobody knows who recorded that footage, though my wife [producer Renata Sachse] is now not sure if I’m correct in saying that.
Christopher Small: Is this a similar impulse to the one that leads you to using computer generated images in The Pearl Button?
Patricio Guzmán: For the Quasar?
Christopher Small: And for the helicopter scene. I think read that somewhere.
Patricio Guzmán: No, the helicopter is not computer generated. It appeared in another Chilean film, and I asked the same crew to do a fly-by while tossing out the bodies, based on how the journalist in the film claims it happened. That journalist wrote a book about those disappearances, those happenings. It’s the book that comes the closest to clarifying what actually occurred there. There’s a mechanic who appears in my film and who worked on the helicopters in the Pinochet regime who confirms that this is how it happened. I don’t think computer generated imagery in documentaries is as unusual as many would claim. When you see Patagonia from the sky in my film, that is computer generated. And when the narrator speaks about planets that could be asylums for other water nomads that is also made on the computer. The helicopter was simply a reconstruction. That was the only way, as the armed forces in Chile would never have consented to cooperate with that kind of work.
Christopher Small: Do you think this expressive postproduction work that is a liberating aspect of making films digitally?
Patricio Guzmán: Yes, of course! It’s better and there are more ways of doing things. Not only are there more technological possibilities but there are also more mechanical possibilities as well. You can do whatever you like. Still, you can perfectly reconstruct something for which there are no images but that does not make it credible. In The Pearl Button, the bodies being prepared and disposed of from the helicopter are introduced clearly as a reconstruction. And I wanted to reconstruct these scenes from two sources: one was from the lawyer, acting on behalf of the victim whose body washed up ashore, and from the journalist’s investigations into the subject. The process struck me as so sinister, so barbaric, that I felt compelled to reconstruct them in all their detail. That’s what you see in the film: the process. First they wrap the bodies in plastic, attach the metal rail, and tie them with wire, as you see in the film. I wanted the process to be made visible.
Christopher Small: And do you see a difference between digital and 16mm projection and distribution?
Patricio Guzmán: Digital is a lot better for me. It’s faster, cheaper, easier. For documentaries particularly, that’s fantastic. You only need a low budget. I have no problem with modernity, just the opposite. Celluloid was awful. The lenses for 16mm, those I could get, were not good at all. Awful. The hardware was mediocre. It’s all over for celluloid. The jerkiness of 16mm; I don’t regret that it is no longer the case. For conservation, perhaps it’s different. But it’s a technical deficiency of 16mm shooting. In 35mm, there are two lines of sprockets, meaning the image is stable. In 16mm, there is only one. The single line of sprockets mean that the picture is never stable, as with digital. And even for me the definition was often lacking with 16mm. But to be clear, the moral problem of making documentaries is not with the camera, it is in one’s head.
Many thanks to David Gillam, Renata Sachse, and Ryan Prout.