Berlinale 2016. In Search of El Dorado

A quest for El Dorado can be found across multiple films focusing on migration in the Berlin International Film Festival.
Ruben Demasure

An Outpost of Progress

“Shadow,” said he,
“Where can it be –
This land of Eldorado?” —Edgar Allan Poe, “Eldorado”, 1849

While critics mine film festivals for hidden or sometimes unattainable gems, a parallel quest for an El Dorado can be seen as a thematic undercurrent within the larger focus of the Berlin International Film Festival’s Forum section on migration. This quest is especially apparent in the gold mines of the Peruvian Andes in Salomé Lamas’ Eldorado XXI and the jade mines of northern Myanmar in Midi Z’s City of Jade. Set in the same war-torn region as the latter film, Wang Bing’s Ta'ang follows people from the eponymous minority group seeking safer shelter across the Chinese border. In An Outpost of Progress and competition film Letters from War, the Portuguese filmmakers Hugo Vieira da Silva and Ivo M. Ferreira deal explicitly with the colonial connotations of the notion of El Dorado. And set in Portugal, Sergio da Costa and Maya Kosa’s semi-documentary Rio Corgo follows an eternal wanderer searching for a personal state of grace.

Historically, the tale of this mythical city of gold has inspired a number of futile expeditions among sixteenth century Western conquistadors. Since then, the concept of El Dorado underwent several transformations: from a legendary location where wealth could be rapidly acquired, to something one might spend one’s life seeking but may not even exist. The longing for a fabled city of gold not only shined through as a thematic search for economical, political or personal reasons, but also translates in terms of how the filmmakers utilize sound, texture and lighting to evoke this realm of myth and imagination. 


Eldorado XXI

Published the year he died, “Eldorado” is one of the last poems Edgar Allan Poe wrote. He uses the term shadow in the middle of each of the poem’s four stanzas. The meaning of the word, however, changes with each use. What first stands for a literal blocking of the sun comes to connote gloom or despair and finally evokes a ghostly presence. Rhymes between all six Berlinale films likewise reveal variations on this metaphoric use of shadow and darkness to frame the quest for El Dorado.

Eldorado XXI’s post-credits long shot recalls the astonishing opening image of a trail of men trudging up a Peruvian mountain side in search of wealth in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972). Only, in Salomé Lamas’s new documentary this image, captured by a static camera shot, is held for one hour. Similar to Herzog's iconic image, in Eldorado XXI the hikers disappear behind a hillside turn in the background to reemerge in the middle of the frame and ultimately, in the immediate foreground. The shot is depicting the change of shifts of the workers of a gold mine situated at the highest elevation in the world. Dusk turns into pitch black night and the Sisyphean snake-like polonaise of worker ants turns into a vertiginous dance of helmet headlights. 

City of Jade

In City of Jade, Midi Z reunites with his brother who left his family sixteen years ago to become rich overnight in the jade mines. More noteworthy than the personal or political backstory is its saturated color palette and noisy texture. Right at the beginning of the shoot, the director’s camera equipment was confiscated by the Burmese army. All the footage therefore was shot in secret with consumer cameras. The digital noise of the images cinematically erodes the luster of the diggers’ dreams and desires. The images are imbued with a matte-like gold light. Orange hues haunt the hills and contrast with the stark blue tarps on top of the miners’ shacks. It brings to mind Richard Mosse’s Venice Biennale installation, The Enclave (2013), in which the use of infrared stock turned his war imagery pink. Here, the poisonous palette cast the environment in an expressionist, surreal and psychedelic impression of his brother’s opium-infused, mental Helldorado landscape. Marcel L’Herbier was among the first to attempt something similar in El Dorado (1921). This painterly picture, in which a mother tries to find her fortune in an Andalusian cabaret called “El Dorado,” evokes a subjective expression of a character’s world through psychological color tinting and distorted or out-of-focus shots.  

The latest films of Wang Bing and Midi Z take place in the same geographical region and also share similar handheld digital camerawork . However, Wang’s images have a straight, unprocessed look. The extended central section of Ta'ang takes place around a campfire where the eponymous Burmese refugees tell stories about home. Wang uses the burning flame as his single light source, resulting in a DV-aesthetic with burned-out blacks. An unsteadily shining candle in the middle foreground creates a flicker that renders a deaf-mute woman in ghostly shadows.  

Letters from War

Wang and Midi Z’s visual style couldn’t be more different than the overstated lushness of Letters from War. In this film, the noirish low-key lighting casts stark shadows over the colonizers’ cause. Rather than as darkness or despair, shadows in the two other Portuguese features appear in Poe’s third sense: as ghosts in the flesh. Christian saints and notorious historical colonials come out of the foggy forest to visit the ivory-hungry officials in An Outpost of Progress. Rio Corgo’s wandering protagonist Mr. Spaniard is visited by his own image and specters from the past. This semi-documentary is shot around the Trás-os-Montes region, where the Portuguese filmmaking duo António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro captured the mythical and imaginary quality of the area in masterpieces such as Ana (1985). In one of Rio Corgo’s dream sequences, a girl called Ana swaps the man’s richly embroidered sombrero for a golden crown. Standing in a spotlight against a black background, he laughs out loud. Moments before the dream we see him gazing at a piece of fool’s gold. He doesn’t aspire the worldly, yellowish metal. In the original myth, El Dorado isn’t a place, but the legendary gilded king, El Rey Dorado, from a culture where gold represents creative energy. Mr. Spaniard has reached such spiritual freedom when he expresses: “I do what I want. I go where I want to go.”


Rio Corgo

In Poe’s poem the antihero “journeyed long, singing a song.” The sound and pronunciation of the poem are as important as the words. The form and meter of the verses, the play with syllables and the beats at the end of the lines help to express the disappointment and fruitlessness of the journey to El Dorado. In the discussed films offscreen sound evokes either the unattainable El Dorado or the place people have abandoned, leaving them in a sort of no man’s land.  

In Ta'ang, the war is never shown but is present by the aural impact of artillery in the mountains. The kids imitate the machine gun’s ta-ta-ta noises. Similar to Wang Bing's previous film, Father and Sons (2015), the frequent inclusion of shots of mobile phone use reveals that along with their fireside storytelling the migrants’ forms of communication are simultaneously modern and ancient. In contrast to Wang’s observational approach, Midi Z asks his brother questions directly from behind the camera and provides the voice-over himself.  

Letters from War is virtually a film without dialogue. The letters of a doctor serving Portugal’s crumbling empire in Angola are read in voice-over by his wife. His descriptions of her (“Ingres profile,” “Botticelli portrait”) would have stressed his longing better without the few shots that the movie includes of her. She’s his gold, calling her “my country, my land,” while at the same time he confesses he would be a foreigner or intruder anywhere else.  

For Eldorado XXI’s hour-long scene, Salomé Lamas relies on offscreen sound design. She constructed a multi-layered sound piece for this still frame consisting of worker testimonies and excerpts from the mine’s own radio station. The added sounds range from the miners’ footsteps to over-the-top cave-like drippings, church bells and seagulls. “There’re almost on the edge of a Harry Potter film,” Lamas said to me in an interview. In the second part of the documentary, unlike the first made up of many scenes, a Major Lazer reggaeton remix is placed over a frantic Spanish colonial dance in which masked miners loose themselves around a violently flickering fire, a strong example of how the director goes against the standard ethno-anthropological approach of only using direct sound recordings. Her frame of reference is that of the so-called parafiction, a literary term for an art practice in which fictional elements are presented as true. This formal strategy suits the depicted cachorreo labour system which is built on an illusion: after 30 days of unpaid work, the men are allowed to explore the mine during four hours for their own profit.

An Outpost of Progress denies access to the natives’ reactions because of a conscious omission of subtitles for their dialog. As the film winds down, it evolves into a silent film, including intertitles, piano accompaniment and a final iris frame. As in Miguel Gomes’s Tabu (2012), these techniques might suggest the political stutter in dealing with this national past. At the same time, the slapstick tropes conclude the ultimate absurdity of this Beckettian account. Accompanied on his journeys by accordion music and Portuguese 70s songs, Rio Corgo’s picaresque explorer hits the road again in the closing frame… 

“...Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,”
The shade replied –
“If you seek for Eldorado!”


This article was written as part of the Berlinale Talent Press program

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BerlinaleBerlinale 2016Salomé LamasWang BingMidi ZIvo M. FerreiraHugo Vieira da SilvaSergio da CostaMaya KosaFestival Coverage
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