Gold is Where You Find It: Salomé Lamas’ Eldorado XXI
Above sea level, at 16,700 feet, and surrounded by glaciers and mountains in the Peruvian Andes, people prospect for gold. La Rinconada is the highest-elevation permanent human settlement. 30,000 Peruvians, mostly poor, live in this harsh mining town to find what the Quechua called “Tears of the Sun.” A ramshackle pueblo, La Rinconada is grueling and gruesome, awesome and apocalyptic. Mercury contaminates the soil. The city does not have running water or a sewage system. A recent development, electricity powers the city. Yet, with no substantial government presence, La Rinconanda is unregulated. There are no rules, no laws, no order.
Gold reigns supreme. La Rinconada’s major mining enterprise is Corporación Ananea, but plenty of illegal, or as the citizens prefer to call them, “artisanal” mining operations thrive in the city. An old labor system is in effect here called cachorreo that is something akin to a lottery. For 30 days, miners are not paid for their labor. The next day, they scramble because they get to keep whatever gold they can find. Most of the miners are men. Women are frowned upon, but they mine anyways. Called pallaqueras, they rummage for gold in scree and scrap outside the mines. The average person, let alone a filmmaker, would bulk at these conditions. Not Salomé Lamas, she seeks them out.
Lamas’ installations, shorts, and feature films reveal extreme people and places in an aesthetic that is at once detached and mesmerizing, observational and intimate. She is not Werner Herzog. She is not seeking ecstatic truth, nor possesses a murky romanticism about the natural world. No, Lamas is something of a materialist or, as she calls herself, a cobbler refining her craft. “I’m attracted by a series of things related to the ends of the earth, exiled places, margins; I’m always seeking the limits of the forms themselves, whether non-fiction cinema or presentation, showing the same work in different contexts,” Lamas said in an interview with Jorge Mourinha. In No Man’s Land (2012), she interviewed a man who may or may not have been a mercenary for the CIA and Spain’s death squads, GAL (Antiterrorist Liberation Groups). It’s a structuralist documentary in which, akin to Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967), the subject puts on and takes off personas over the course of the film. Lamas has globe-hopped and filmed in such sundry places as the Azores, the Netherlands, Transnistria, and, with Eldorado XXI, the Andes.
Eldorado XXI is Lamas’ most ambitious film yet. It begins with a series of shots that are all overwhelmingly grey. It’s as if the film were in monochrome. We see the desolate, chilly, and monotonous terrain of the Andes, followed by La Rinconada’s tin shacks clustered on the landscape like barnacles clinging to a rock. On the soundtrack, a woman sings a sad song about La Rinconada: “Fighting mother you who work day and night. / While the men thinking themselves brave abandon their children. / While the men thinking themselves brave continue drinking at the bar.” So far so tragically mundane. With these pre-title shots Lamas looks at La Rinconada and the Andes from a bird’s-eye view. We’re so close and yet so very far. With the following shot, Lamas plunges us into the teeming, entropic activity of the mines.
Lamas stations her camera so that it’s looking down off a hill, La Compuerta, a point of entry to the city’s mining pits. In dim light, miners tramp up and down the hill, moving from background to foreground, vanishing off-screen and appearing onscreen. The shot goes on and on and on for an hour without cutting away or the camera moving. Time drags on. And gradually, twilight turns to night. Lights attached to their helmets illuminate the miners. This hour-long take is like witnessing the instinctive, un-thinking reflexivity of an ant colony. The homogeny of movement replaces the homogeny of land seen in the pre-title shots. Your concentration is torn between the repetitive actions on-screen and the dense, varied sound design. You hear water trickling, thunder rumbling, and a multitude of voices. You hear the stories of people in dire social and financial situations coming to La Rinconanda. You hear campaign ads for the 2016 presidential candidate Keiko Fujimoro. You hear tales about men spending what little money they have in the seedy nightclubs strewn throughout the city. And you hear about alms given to mountain deities: La Bella Durmiente, a giant glacier looming over the city that, once it melts, turns into an old hag called Awicha. This rich soundscape pre-figures the events captured in the second hour of the film.
If Eldorado XXI’s first hour is immersive—giving you a shred of what it’s like to work in such an environment—the second is distant. It’s at a remove of what’s unfolding onscreen. Lamas opts for glimpses, sketches, and impressions in order to convey La Rinconada’s culture—a Christian festival intermingling with nocturnal folk rituals. In the latter case, Lamas shoots a hallucinogenic scene in which people don masks, drink, and dance around a campfire blaze. They become El Chinchilico, the gnome-like creature of the Andes who demands cigarettes and liquor and controls the gold.
Eldorado XXI thwarts expectations. It’s a film that sits comfortably in a grey area between the empathetic documentaries of Wang Bing and the absorbing Harvard Sensory Ethnography projects. The film’s title implies a romantic journey to an exotic land seeking treasures and striking it rich. It’s not that far from the pipe dreams and desperation that drive people to the hellish La Rinconada on top of the world.