Berlinale 2015

Patricio Guzmán’s beautiful doc The Pearl Button at IFC Center & other NYC cinemas today

the pearl button

Seasoned filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, whose groundbreaking 1975 The Battle of Chile was a key event in the history of the documentary form, follows his astonishing recent work Nostalgia for the Light (2011) with a similar exploration of familiar themes such as memory and the historical past. The Pearl Button was awarded the Silver Bear for Best Script at 2015 Berlin Film Festival and is opening in NYC at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York City this weekend.

Knight: The Pearl Button is a very beautiful and moving film. I was very impressed with the way you used the metaphor of water, that is usually associated with life, to symbolise death and tragedy. And you used this metaphor to link two apparently unconnected stories: the story of the indigenous people who lived in the waterways of Western Patagonia and Pinochet’s dictatorship practice of dumping political prisoners in the sea.

Guzman: First of all we have to consider that Chile has 2,670 miles of coastline, that is a lot of water. Particularly in the South, there are a lot of channels entering the continent. Those channels were once inhabited by six different indigenous groups. And they were all executed by white men at the beginning of the 20th century.

There’s also the story of Jemmy Button, an indigenous inhabitant who was taken to England to be “civilised”. He agreed to go in exchange for a single mother-of-pearl button, hence his English name. When he was brought back to his community in Patagonia, he couldn’t readapt, he remained very much isolated, he died alone. These were discoveries that I made on a trip to Patagonia and served as the basis for the film.

I spent 10 days navigating through the channels with a small vessel, and when I arrived back in Santiago de Chile, I came across another story: a pearl button was found stuck to a rail brought to the surface by ocean divers. And I immediately made the connection between Jemmy Button and this other button. And with that, I pretty much had the whole film. And yes, it is my claim in the film that the ocean contains the history of all humanity. 

Knight: There is a reflection in the film about “the memory of water”, about how water remembers things, events, people. I was wondering if you were referring to the latest medical research from Japan where doctors discovered that water has indeed memory and the ability to form a molecular imprint of everything that comes into contact with it?

Guzman: Actually there are studies about the memory of water that are much older than that. Even in the 19th century in the diaries of FitzRoy, he mentions the possibility of water having memory. There’s another very interesting book by a researcher called Theodor Schwenk, it’s called Sensitive Chaos, published in 1962. This book also talks about water having memory.

Knight: I suppose those were theories whereas now there’s actually scientific proof that water has memory. And not many people know that.

Guzman: That’s true. The very first scientist who started to talk about that was a French scientist in the 1950s. And no one believed him!

Patricio Guzman

Patricio Guzmán during the making of The Pearl Button

Knight: Has the metaphor of ‘sea as cemetery’ been explored by other Chilean artists before or is this the first time it’s been put together in this way?

Guzman: The first time in cinema yes. As to the other Chilean artists I’m not completely sure.

Knight: Could you talk about the potential of beauty and beautiful imagery to convey horror and horrific events in such a powerful way? From this point of view, your film is like a cinematic oxymoron. There’s a disconnect between form and content in your film that mirrors the disconnect that must take place in the human brain when witnessing such horrors.

Guzman: The landscape where I shot the film is very beautiful, especially the channels in the South. There are waterfalls of ice and the sea has a very deep blue colour. There are also volcanos. That’s where the five main indigenous tribes lived and were very happy. And they all died within 2 years after the white men arrived. They wanted the land all to themselves so that they could bring cattle. They hired gunmen to exterminate the indigenous people. Those who remained alive were taken to the missions where they got contaminated with microbes brought from Europe. Today there are only six indigenous people alive.

Knight: What aspect of filmmaking have you found the most challenging in the making of this film?

Guzman: The most challenging part was navigating through those channels, there are very few boats that venture that way. Days and weeks can pass by without encountering any other human beings. And storms happen out of the blue. In those cases, you have to take shelter in a narrow channel and wait for it to pass.

There was another challenge near the coast of Santiago where Pinochet’s political prisoners were dumped. In this case the challenge was not geographic but the fact that there are still very few people willing to talk about it. All in all, it was a difficult film to make.

Knight: This was actually my next question: I read in your interview with Frederick Wiseman that the Chilean television is still a bit reluctant, even now, to show your documentaries on TV, is it true of this film also?

Guzman: We don’t know yet if the Chilean television will be interested in this film because the film is opening next week in cinemas in Chile. So we’ll see what happens.

Fassbinder – To Love Without Demands @!f Istanbul 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Fassbinder – To Love without Demands made its world premiere at the 2015 Berlinale in the Panorama section, a programme dedicated to  films that provide insight on new directions in art house cinema.

The film is a portrait of one of the world’s most prominent and productive directors, Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Danish filmmaker Christian Braad Thomsen was close friends with Fassbinder throughout his career and the film is built around the footage that Braad Thomsen made with Fassbinder throughout the 1970s and which have not previously been published.

Below is an interview with Christian Braad Thomsen taken at !f Istanbul, February 2015


Danish filmmaker Christian Braad Thomsen

Dana Knight: You first met Fassbinder in 1969 when he showed his first film Love Is Colder Than Death at Berlinale and became a close friend of his over the years. How did this friendship grow and develop?

Christian Braad Thomsen: I met him because I was almost the only one that liked his first film. It was furiously booed out by the audience, whereas I thought that in a way it was the first film in the world, a rediscovery of the film language, which had been totally corrupted by Hollywood. So when I met him in a bar, I went up to him and congratulated him, because I thought he needed some comforting words. He was only 24 years old. But he couldn’t care less. This security was what impressed me most from the beginning, – and little by little we became friends .

Knight: You start the film by making a very daring statement: that in 50 years time when film history will be re-evaluated, Hitchcock and Fassbinder will be remembered as the two single most important artists of the 20th century. While everybody is familiar with Hitchcock’s work, probably the same degree of popularity does not characterise Fassbinder’s films. Is that to do with the fact that the bitter pill he served us was not sugar-coated?

Braad Thomsen: Yes. Bitter pills are not popular, but they are necessary against sickness. And Fassbinder considered his society sick. He thought that children were brought up to be talking puppets in stead of independent human beings. He thought that dependency made people sick and in his films he analyzes the causes of the sickness in civilization

Knight: Fassbinder is such a controversial filmmaker, his films are so divisive. What touched you the most about his films that made you become such a staunch defender of his art?

Braad Thomsen: The most touching element in his films is that he is able to describe oppression so clearly that we can all see what is wrong with our ways of creating our families and our society. And no matter how cruel some of his characters behave, he still has a lot of pity for them – and for us.

Knight: In your interviews with him, Fassbinder is more open than ever talking about postwar Hollywood, which was his first love, and psychoanalysis, love, marriage, children and madness. Did any of his views ever surprise you or you already knew his mind based on this films?

Braad Thomsen: I was so shocked by the last interview I did with him at his hotel room in Cannes, that I dared not watch the interview for 30 years. He criticizes me strongly for having put a child into this world, although I should have know better, he talks about sadomasochism as a natural consequence of the world, we have created, and he discusses madness as a possiblev solution for each individual. What he means is, I suppose, what also a psychiatrist like Ronald D. Laing meant in the 1970’s, that in a world as crazy as ours, everybody who reacts against this world is considered mad – though he or she may be the most normal of all persons.

Knight: The film also contains interviews with Fassbinder’s mother, Lilo Pempeit,  the actress Irm Hermann who became his lover and almost committed suicide when he left her,  the actor and producer Harry Bär who was the last to talk with Fassbinder, just a few hours before he died, actor Andrea Schober, who played the child roles in Fassbinder’s early films. How did all these other people enrich the image you held of Fassbinder?

Braad Thomsen: They showed me what love is. How could they love a person that also had so many unpleasant aspects as Fassbinder. And how could I love him so deeply, though I am not the least homosexual.  Made the film in order to find out what love is, and I am not sure I succeeded, because defining love is probably impossible. But I believe what Petra von Kant says in Fassbinders film:  “You must learn to love without demands.”

Knight: In making this documentary, you’re using previously unseen footage, mainly your own interviews with him taken throughout his life. What was it like to revisit those conversations? Anything that struck you in particular?

Braad Thomsen: What struck me most is that Fassbinder never lied, but always was honest. He never talked in clichés, but was always completely sincere and naked in front of my camera.

Knight: Fassbinder died in 1982. Why do you think it was important to wait over 30 years to make this documentary?

Braad Thomsen: I didn’t know how to make it. The task seemed overwhelming, and  I thought I needed to overcome his death, before I made the film. But finally I realized that those who were close to him, will never get over his death. He was not only a father figure for most of us, he was also a child. He didn’t want to grow up in this world, but insisted of remaining a child – and yet, he was, of course, the most mature and wise of us all. But he was also a child, whom we tried to protect – and we never get over the death of a child.

Knight: In the last film interview with Fassbinder, shot just a few hours before he died, he said something striking that sums up his contradictions:“To be complete, you need to double yourself.” Can you comment on that?

Braad Thomsen: The translation in the subtitles is not quite precise. He actually says “To be complete, you need yourself once again.” I think this is the most important he ever said. The mirror was his favourite symbol, because in the mirror we have ourselves once again. When we wake up in the morning after a hopefully beautiful dream, we see the sad reality in the mirror in the bath room. On a deeper level he may af thought of Sigmund Freuds understanding of our personality: we are divided between law and lust. The law of our parents and our society is represented in our superego, which plays the dominating role in our lives, whereas our personal needs and lust is put away in the id. Fassbinder admired Freud, and one of the projects he never realized was a film based on Freuds “Moses and Monotheism”, where Freud splits Moses into two very different persons, a cruel dictator and a mild shepherd. Fassbinder wanted to unite the superego and the id, the dictator and the shepherd.