Salomé Lamas on the Hypnotic, Hour-Long Opening Shot of Her Documentary on Peruvian Miners

There is one shot in Salomé Lamas’ documentary, El Dorado XXI, that hypnotizes you. The camera is set up so that you have a fixed shot of one of the many bustling crossroads in La Rinconada, a gold mining settlement in the High Andes in Peru — the highest elevation human habitation in the world. It’s almost twilight and all you see is this throng of miners coming and going, heading up to the mines (or down from them) — a type of human version of rush hour L.A. traffic. We watch this for close to an hour while Lamas mixes in a number of interviews and radio shows from those living in this most desolate of settlements.

I almost wished I’d caught the film without subtitles — they were the only thing that kept me from getting lost in this transfixing image that starts getting darker, as if to match the gruesome and violent and despairing stories being shared with us by the film’s soundtrack. La Rinconada, as Lamas’s film explains more fully once it lets itself show off more of the people, is riddled with problems with law and order, not least of which is the troubling prevalence of sexual violence against women. Indeed, much of Lamas’s film finds ways of giving voice to the pallaqueras, the women who sort through ore that’s already been sifted in hopes of finding some gold, who remain at the margins of the politics and economics of La Rinconada. Different in scope and in length, it feels like an inadvertent companion to Karen Vazquez Guadarrama’s Sundance short, Flor de mil colores.

More importantly, Lamas finds plenty of beauty and community-building in the Peruvian settlement, turning her camera to various parades and gatherings, as well as framing the beautiful natural landscapes around the mine. It’s in these various contrasts that Eldorado XXI emerges as a must-see doc, especially as it examines ideas of limits and borders in ways both geographical and cinematic.

Ahead of the film’s screening in New York, we chatted with the Portuguese director to talk about shooting in Peru and what it took to create that tour de force shot that opens the film. Check out some highlights below.

El Dorado XXI screens as part of New Directors/New Films on March 22 and 23, 2016.

On The Perils Of Shooting At La Rinconada

The whole production was a roller coaster. There was a moment during the second week of shooting when I thought about calling Lisbon and sending people back. Because we were wasting money and wasting people’s time. I had no idea what we were doing there. I mean, even the drivers we’d hired — after a week, they were like, we had no idea this was going to be so dangerous. And it wasn’t about the road or the weather conditions (though that was something else altogether). It was about all the violent stories you begin to hear when you get to La Rinconada. We started to bribe the police to be escorted down the road. And then the drivers would say, well that doesn’t fix anything because the police is corrupt. You end up getting into these holes where it’s really up to the people whether they want to be there or not.


On That Impressive Extended Shot

When I went location scouting in 2014 I was just shooting some things. We were just there to see if the film was feasible or not. You know, we kept getting funding for this and I just kept looking at Luis Urbano, my producer, and we at that point didn’t know whether we’d be able to deliver the film. So we go up there for location scouting and it’s hard but we’re there. We commute there every day and we’re just these girls who ended up there. And whenever I’d go, I ran out of ideas I’d say, let’s go to La Compuerta because I was really amazed at that big flow of, not just miners, but peasants and people who are traders or just carry things. And it’s like rush hour. So back then I recorded approximately 20 minutes of that kind of perspective. Same framing as you see in the film, though with different equipment. The thing is, the miners they work for 24 hours. So there are a couple of moments when the shift changes. The human traffic is much more intense. And late in the day is when you’ll get these other people. Because La Compuerta, what you see there, is one of the neighborhoods at La Rinconada and it’s one of the passages into the mine.

So when I came back to Portugal I had a solo museum show and I was showing already existing installations. But there was an opportunity to commission a new work and I said, okay. What I decided to do was to transfer this image and just have it run and we covered the floor with stones like La Rinconada and then we did a vinyl edition, and on one side you could hear some interviews and testimonies from our location scouting, and some music, a little bit of a patchwork like you find in the first half of the film. Just more lo-fi. A draft of what you see in the film. And on the other half of the vinyl I invited two musicians to do some improv jam around those images. What you see in Eldorado XXI has its roots in that installation which is called Mount Ananea.

On Deciding How To Edit The Film

When we returned to the editing room I had this idea of maybe making two films. I don’t know if you’re familiar with O Som e a Furia, and our co-producers Shellac Sud, but they’d just come out of producing Arabian Nights by Miguel Gomes, so when I said two films, they were like, “We don’t wanna do that. It was just a nightmare!” But then the two films is what you have now in the film, in a way. I had to explain to production that we were moving away from this more classical approach to film and had to tell them I wanted to open with this hour-long shot. It was a process of convincing them and until the sound work was done I wasn’t even convinced that the whole thing would work.