Gold miners toil on a rocky cliff in Peru’s La Rinconada. At an elevation of more than three miles, the site is home to 30,000  miners and their families. Photo from "El Dorado XXI"

Digging in the clouds

Review: Salomé Lamas’‘El Dorado XXI’

By Lawrence Weschler


At 5100 meters (16,700 ft.), the sprawling Andean gold mining encampment at La Rinconada, in the southeastern corner of Peru, just shy of the Bolivian border, is quite simply the highest-elevation permanent human settlement in the world, encompassing a population of close to 30,000 souls, the vast majority of them desperately poor. The principal enterprise there is overseen by the Corporacion Ananea, but, as William Finnegan pointed out in a recent piece in The New Yorker (“Tears of the Sun: The Gold Rush at the Top of the World,” April 20, 2015), “Nearly all the mines and miners there are ‘informal,’ a term that critics consider a euphemism for illegal. [Others] prefer the term ‘artisanal.’ The mines, whatever you call them, are small, numerous, unregulated, and, as a rule, grossly unsafe. Most don’t pay salaries, let alone benefits, but run on an ancient labor system called cachorreo. This system is usually described as thirty days of unpaid work followed by a single frantic day in which workers get to keep whatever gold they can haul out for themselves.”

It’s not surprising, then, that such an extreme locale might draw the attention of the precociously accomplished young Portuguese filmmaker Salomé Lamas (still in her twenties though already the veteran of cinematic projects ranging from the Azores to the Netherlands to Moldovan Transnistria and focusing on everything from the confessions of former French Foreign Legionnaires and Portuguese colonial mercenaries to the midnight exertions of North Sea fishermen and the borderland perambulations of post-Soviet “nowhere men”) The terrible splendors of La Rinconada, by turns devastating and grace-flecked, she has managed to haul back from her time up there.

Lamas’ film, “El Dorado XXI,” launches with a series of sublimely still images, mountain lakes and sheerscapes, like nothing so much as the magesterial photographs of Ansel Adams, except that in this instance, black and white are the actual colors and, wait, those scraggly grass tufts over there in the corner turn out to be shivering in the wind, a bird suddenly floats by, and all that scrabbly scree isn’t a mountain face at all but rather an entire town, barely clinging to the cliff-face.

Director Salomé Lamas discusses her film 'Eldorado XXI' after its U.S. premiere at New Directors/New Films 2016. Youtube video

Shortly after the credits comes the biggest marvel of all. Another long take, long and then longer and then longer still. One is reminded of those amazing careering single-takes at the outsets of Scorsese’s movies or the endlessly roving vantage in Sokurov’s “Russian Ark,” except that in this instance (an audacious Copernican flip!) the camera doesn’t move at all, peering down instead from on high as Lamas holds her unblinking gaze for close to an hour, while dozens and then hundreds (and presently thousands?) of miners, groaning under the weight of their burdens, trudge by in squeezed files. Some head up and others down the narrow pitched mountain path, the scene starting out in thin crepuscule but persisting into pitch black (by the end all we see are the criss-crossing beams of the workers’ hardhat headlamps), the soundtrack consisting of the crunch of their boots played off against stray wisps of audio testimony and wafting passages of radio banter. A human antfile. A Dantesque Escher-scape: Möbian Sisyphi.

An hour in, Lamas finally blinks, and what follows is a veritable avalanche of sense impressions, one haunting and haunted setpiece after the next. Tin shacks scattered about a high desert plateau. The wind. Snug inside one of those shacks, a huddle of weathered women, bundled against the cold, sifting and sorting coca leaves, stuffing the occasional wad into their cheeks as they trade gossip and often surprisingly sophisticated political analyses (one of the women weaves in the insights of the economist Hernando de Soto) laced between considerations as to the relative beneficences of coca chew and tobacco toke.

Read the rest of this story in the Summer 2016 issue of Artenol. Order yours today

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