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Units of Measurement: "Eldorado XXI"

Exploring Salomé Lamas's awesome documentary on the people, work, and landscape of a gold mine in the Peruvian Andes.
Salomé Lamas's Eldorado XXI (2016), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from July 21 - August 20, 2017 as a Special Discovery. A version of this article originally appeared in Salomé Lamas: Parafiction (2016), published by Mousse Publishing, and appears thanks to the generosity of the publisher and original author.
Eldorado XXI
What can five shots hold? Two are enough to capture a landscape, an expanse of rock, ice, cloud, and snow so vast it feels like the frame can hardly contain it, like the lake, mountains, and sky stretch on forever. Everything appears frozen, immobile, devoid of life, it’s only when a bird flies overhead and the wind moves through the blackened reeds that it even becomes clear it’s not a photograph. There’s no sign of where the voice might be coming from, it can only have emerged from beneath the tundra, carried and amplified by the wind. It sings of a sorrow as immeasurable as the land, of endurance, of endless exertion, and the endless drinking needed to assuage it, of a life whose coordinates are the Lunar de Oro, La Rinconada, and pallaquear.
One more shot and something else emerges from the landscape, something that carries the same grey and white color. At first glance, it could be a natural formation, some rare mineral outcrop spilling out of the side of the mountain, a geological structure of countless proliferating rectangles. A cut follows and with it certainty, the rectangles are iron huts and the outcrop is a city, albeit one as silent and still as the expanse it nestles within. One final cut and the city fills the frame, but this is a city unlike any other. No light, no color, no movement, nothing that stands out, nothing to catch the eye. A place of pure function, without ornament, a place extracted from the elements, not designed. Five shots to hold a landscape and a city and blanket both in misery.  
What can one shot hold? It can track the changes in light that unfold over fifty-seven minutes. It’s dusk at the beginning and the path is still visible, a strip of mud that zigzags down the mountain, disappearing from time to time behind the mounds of sandbags and trash that form its makeshift borders, topped off with a sprinkling of snow. For a while, there’s light enough to make out the yellow and orange of the hard hats, the patterns that adorn bags and clothing alike, the white reflective strips on the black uniforms. But darkness falls quickly and soon only torches light the way, marking the course of the now-invisible path, alighting on the rubble and detritus encased in the muddy, icy ground, picking out babies strapped to their mothers, sacks resting on shoulders, bent backs swaddled in thick blankets. The radio announcer says it’s 6:21 am, but it’s getting darker by the minute, day and night mean little here and time is a relative concept. These fifty-seven minutes could be any fifty-seven minutes, a unit of measurement as impeccably unwieldy as the place it’s measuring.
The announcer is one voice among many, one voice amid the flurries of call-ins, interviews, and news reports, election ads, music, and extended first-person testimonies. People talk of arriving with neither money nor experience, of learning to extract gold without guidance, of selfishness, isolation, and hardship. Shootings in the street, desperate suicides, dynamite attacks, robberies; the voice that sang the opening song wasn’t beneath the tundra, it was here. Stories pass through the mind and bodies pass in front of the camera, and the natural impulse is to attach one to the other. But while the flow of stories sometimes slows, the stream of bodies is ceaseless; for every body to which a story can be affixed, there are ten left without one. Things are not neat and not everyone gets their say; for each story that can be told, there are scores more that cannot.  
When talk turns to prospects, to aspiration, to hierarchies, each person passing the camera becomes a fleeting embodiment of the only two possible directions. Some start from nothing and ascend, taking the road that leaves the individual behind and leads towards the promise of effort shared, to the prospect of taking one’s place within the Corporation that lies at the summit. It’s a seductive trajectory, which is another reason why the stream of bodies never abates. But few reach the top; even when a wife rises, her husband can still fall. It’s not just hard to get your footing in the first place, a place as volatile as this can always take your feet out from under you. So the image is a constant reminder too, of the fact that any path that leads upwards also leads back down again.
By the time the mountainside is in total darkness, there’s nothing to stop sound from overriding space. When the wind begins to howl, it’s as if the scene has moved further up the mountain, where the throngs of people must cling on to the rock for dear life. When the noise of dripping water comes to the fore and everything starts to echo, it’s as if the people no longer swarm up and down the mountain but rather inside it, passing through the vast cavern where La Bella Durmiente, the Awichita, dwells, two names of the many given to the sacred keeper of Rinconada’s treasure. If it weren’t so dark, all the offerings could be seen littering the ground: coca leaves, fruit, liquor, human hearts ripped from bodies still living; the greater the offering, the greater the protection. But this is just one more relationship of scale in a place full of them, so many, in fact, it’s easily to overlook the simplest one, that one that’s the most shocking. For light, time, subject or location may change, but whatever happens, there’s no breaking the chain. One shot full of the fuel that powers the mountain, a stream of bodies that never ends.
What’s left to do when the counting is done? Mental images need fleshing out, relationships need adjustment, and initial assumptions need to be overturned. For all the endless climbing, only a vehicle can take you to the highest plateau. Up here, the parts are familiar but their arrangement different. There are the same iron huts from the city below, but here they form clusters, not one conjoined mass. The time it takes for the thunder to cross the valley proves the landscape is as vast as ever, but there’s no snow on the ground; beyond the piles of debris, there are even tufts of grass. It’s the same story when the workers take to the slopes to sift through the scree, you’ve seen the helmets and been told the names of the tools, but this is the first time you’ve seen them put to use. You’ve heard the sound of the wind whipping the mountain, but you’ve never seen how easily it could pull you off the edge.
The woman chewing coca leaves do indeed mention Awichita, but also all the other, more prosaic things that the leaves protect from, dizziness, hunger, fatigue. Their chatter reveals that the true gods of the mountain are just as earthbound, if still impossibly far away, deities named Fujimora, Ollanta, or García with temples in distant Lima. Just like in the election ads, it’s all about promises, rather than how they’re delivered. When an offering is made on the mountainside, the reality is less spectacular than in the mind, a modest nighttime ceremony held on a pile of trash, with torches and a small fire for atmosphere. It feels far more ceremonial when the mysterious figures in masks and hats dance in frenzy around the bonfire, although it’s never clear what exact wish they seek to have granted: to be suffused with divine energy or released from infernal work. It’s no coincidence that the masks arrive when perspectives are shifting: when the little boy nervously places the mask over his face as asked, it doesn’t just change the look of things but also how they should be seen.
When the camera returns to the city, it no longer appears like the place seen at the start. Whether down at street level or viewed from above, there is now light, color, and movement, a place of noise, activity, life. Both the steep, narrow streets and bodies thronging through them recall the pathway up the mountain, although the directions to be taken are no longer fixed. Girls veer off to the side, a couple wander down the hill together, a man stops to urinate in the street before dragging his inebriated friend with him up the road. It didn’t look like there was any space for celebration, yet the square before the church can hold music stages, marquees swathed in yellow bunting, and a long, curving line of plastic chairs, to say nothing of the crowds of people. It’s Easter and the sky is blue, the alferados have been generous, the costumes and icons are lined with gold. It’s only when the dancing gets going that thoughts return to sorrow, which is now something to be fought, not to be measured: “In a glass of beer, I will kill this sadness”. It looks like a happy ending but this is not the end, there’s still one final glimpse of the landscape to remind you it’s as implacable as always. For where else does the ice-rimmed passage lead but back into the mountain?

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