A bold new film chronicles life 5,000 metres above sea level

Salomé Lamas’ documentary Eldorado XXI follows migrant workers in the Peruvian Andes.


Ben Nicholson


Nestled in the vast tundra of the Peruvian Alps, at over 5,000 metres above sea level, is the world’s highest permanent settlement, La Rinconada. Closer to the heavens it might be, but it resembles a cobble-stoned floor – a cluster of slate-grey buildings camouflaged against unforgiving, frosty surroundings. The 50,000 people who call it home do so because of its proximity to a local gold mine and their hardscrabble lives are the focus of Salomé Lamas’ bold new documentary Eldorado XXI, which screens at London’s Tate Modern on 11 January.

Lamas is herself an exciting prospect. Still in her twenties and a PhD candidate at the University of Coimbra, she already lays claim to an impressive filmography – a heady blend of audiovisual performance, multi-channel installation, short films and, more recently, two features. She operates at the intersection of various modalities, adapting form to suit function and crafting ethnographic journeys that often teeter on the boundary between fiction and documentary. In her first feature, No Man’s Land, her voice-over narration explicitly expresses her desire to engage with the personal perspective of her subject, a retired mercenary recounting his bloody exploits: “I’m interested in his truth.”

What is most arresting in No Man’s Land, and heightened further in her more accomplished second feature, is Lamas’ unflinching empathy in the face of stark brutality. No Man’s Land is a chronicle of state-sanctioned violence and Eldorado XXI of hardship and exploitation, but both are also deeply felt meditations on the human condition. Even when they’ve witnessed a lack of it on screen, when the darker recesses of our nature are excavated in front of their eyes, audiences are reminded of their compassion by Lamas’ formal ingenuity and meticulous construction. Eldorado XXI’s first half is made up of what is perhaps the filmmaker’s bravest gamble yet, a single unbroken shot in nearly pitch-black light that lasts for almost an hour.

A sequence of static, snowy landscapes provide the slightest context before attention turns to a rocky incline that appears to be either an unlit mountainside or more likely the shaft leading down into a mine. The camera watches on, unblinking for 55 minutes as the workers trudge back and forth along this perilous path, their headlamps lighting the scene. Some critics have decried the duration of the shot for supposedly pandering to a festival circuit that unreservedly elevates slow cinema, but in fact the monotony serves a far more important purpose.

As Luis Armando Arteaga’s lens lingers, the soundtrack cycles through a panoply of aural accompaniments which in turn seem to morph the images. Beginning with a woman’s account of her family relocating to La Rinconada in search of salvation (“Rinconada is for the people who have tried everything, no?”) the stream of workers initially seem to embody the fatigue of sustained effort to stay afloat. However, as the audio continues through cheesy radio jingles, unsettling news reports, and harrowing accounts of betrayal and murder, the chain of head torches begins to have a transformative effect.

When a newsreader discusses the overwhelming build-up of refuse in the town, what at first looked like pale rocks below suddenly take the shape of a mountain of garbage. When the shocking terms of the workers’ contracts is revealed – working 30 days for free before being allowed to keep as much ore as you can carry on the 31st day, irrespective of yield – the people struggling with enormous sacks on their backs become all the more tragic. When a women recounts instances of people falling – or being pushed – to their deaths, the winding path seem all the more precarious. Stories about murder and even human sacrifice in offering to the mine emphasise the blackness of the pit, like some ominous circle of hell.

And then, after an hour, the film cuts to comparatively shining daylight. The camera patiently observes as wives of workers endure the bitter chill on a hillside to search for unnamed minerals, or chew the cud – and the cocoa – in a small workhouse while workers and husbands stumble drunk from the local pub to a brothel. In an upbeat civic celebration that closes the film, a song plays as people smile and sway: ‘In a glass of beer I will kill this sadness / Like you killed my poor heart.’ It’s a moment of profound dejection and, somehow, hope and perseverance. Lamas once again shows her adeptness at mining empathy from the bleakest of ore, and she does so with a bracing experimental edge.

Published 11 Jan 2017

Tags: Salomé Lamas

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