Sundance 2014: Meet Mark Grieco, Director of Colombian Documentary ‘Marmato’

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The Sundance Film Festival is upon us. So is my annual bout of S.A.D. or what I like to call Sundance Affective Disorder — I get really depressed that I’m not at Sundance. Instead of wallowing in pain, we here at Remezcla decided to celebrate the Latino films playing the fest.

Of the more than 100 movies premiering at Sundance this year, five are Latino. In the U.S. Documentary competition are Cesar’s Last Fast on the labor leader and United Farm Workers co-founder Cesar Chavez and Marmato, a look at gold mining in Colombia. Natalia Smirnoff’s second film Lock Charmer (El cerrajero) and the Chilean thriller To Kill a Man round out the World Cinema Dramatic section. In Frontier Films, a showcase of movies that experiment with traditional storytelling, is Living Stars a fun peek into different people’s homes in Buenos Aires as they dance to a well-known pop song.

The next best thing to being in Park City, Utah this week is a chance to chat with the filmmakers whose projects were selected for the prestigious festival. We got to sit down with Mark Grieco, the director of the Colombian documentary Marmato ahead of its world premiere at Sundance. The Pennsylvania native shared how he ended up in Marmato, Colombia deep down inside a dangerous gold mine with no crew for six years.

Marmato Director Mark Grieco (R) stands with José Dumar, a miner (L)
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Where are you from?

I am from the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

What city do you call home?

I currently live in Medellin, Colombia.

When did you know that you wanted to be a filmmaker?

When I was 7 or 8 years old I snuck out of my room in the middle of the night and watched Alien in the dark. It scared the hell out of me. I thought to myself, if a film could do this to me I would love to be able to bring out that kind of emotion in others. But it really wasn’t until I was 21 that I started to pursue filmmaking as a real option. After being rejected from graduate film school, I decided I had to do it on my own.

What’s a movie you are embarrassed to admit you really like?

I’m not too embarrassed to admit it: I like Starship Troopers.

‘Starship Troopers’
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How did you find out your film got accepted to Sundance?

I had just finished working on the first phase of sound design for the film. I was visiting family when I got the news. There’s really no way to explain the excitement at that moment after working for 6 years on this film.

How did you end up in Marmato, Colombia?

Backpacking through South America, traveling as an independent photographer. About a year into that trip I arrived at the historic silver mines of Potosí in Bolivia. The history of Potosí and the conditions in which the miners worked struck me in such a profound and powerful way. I was outraged, but also fascinated with the stories of the miners, their culture and resilience. I began to seek out more mining towns to photograph and a possible story behind one that was not a discarded relic of colonial rule or presently in control of a foreign mining company. It took a year of searching through Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Venezuela before I found Marmato, in Colombia. When I arrived it was exactly what I thought I was looking for: locals were mining the gold in a small-scale, traditional way and it stayed within the local economy – creating a fascinating and unique micro-culture.

What about the mining struggle in Marmato convinced you it would make a compelling film?

Like I said, I thought I had found what I was looking for, but in reality it was about to become the very thing I had seen before in those other mining towns. In fact, the week I arrived in Marmato, a junior Canadian mining company starting poking around and buying up mines from the locals. This company’s plan was to buy every mine, relocate the people, and build a large-scale open-pit mine where the town sits. So, when I arrived in Marmato, there wasn’t a struggle that compelled me to make the film, it was the potential for a struggle to come. I had seen the end point of this process in those other mining towns and I wanted to understand how it began. Sometimes this is the best reason to make a film – to understand something that you would never have the opportunity to comprehend before.

Can you talk about the choice to film everything yourself without a crew?

This really wasn’t by choice; the decision was born out of necessity. After visiting Marmato, I went back to New York to work as a freelance editor, save money and buy a camera. When I finally had enough money I bought a prosumer camcorder, a tripod, and an on-camera light for the mines and went back to Marmato alone. I didn’t have the money for a crew. But I learned later that this turned out to be to my advantage and I hope it shows in the film. I was able to get incredible access with the families and be allowed into their lives enough to give them the intimacy and honesty they deserve in the film.

Also, I was only responsible for putting my own life at risk filming in the mines. I could get into any place the miners were working and not have to think about lights, a crew, or anyone else’s safety. And, it was clear right from the start, I had to earn the miners’ respect and trust to continue to film them and their families. So, in the 2 years of filming I would go to the mines most mornings, bring the camera, film a little bit and then grab a shovel or pick and work with them. In conditions sometimes over 110 degrees, I can’t imagine turning to my DP and saying, “forget what you’re doing and start shoveling.”

Years later, as tensions grew and filming anything became very complicated, I had already become somewhat of a fixture in the town. Everyone expected to see this “Gringo” with his camera whenever anything was happening. If I had had a crew working with me I don’t think I could have controlled the difficulties of local politics and sensibilities in such a small town living through such a complex situation.

What do you hope to achieve with your film? What sort of impact do you think it will have?

The real ambition of Marmato is not to take a side on who is right and who is wrong. Rather it is an attempt to expose how a takeover process like this evolves, who is involved, and above all to examine who benefits, and who suffers. My hope is that audiences will connect with each character in the film regardless of where they stand on the issue; to imagine themselves in this complex situation and how they would rationalize their own choices. Hoping that from this, we could start an incredible dialogue about resource extraction and the human and labor rights associated with its actions in the developing world. In my opinion, this is the only way to enact real and beneficial change – to see across the aisle and work through the noise to the real problems.

I also want to put Marmato, the town, on the map. Currently, there is a flood of foreign investment in oil and mining in Colombia and Marmato exemplifies some of the effects of this. The decades-long internal conflict in Colombia has discouraged foreign investment in large-scale mining in the country. But now, with improvements in security, billions of dollars are flowing in to a country that is rich in untapped natural resources, yet has one of the world’s highest internally displaced populations, one of the most unequal economic divides in the hemisphere, and remains embroiled in this violent, 50 year-old internal conflict. How is the Colombian Government going to handle the potential social, political and environmental impacts of large-scale mining and how are these vulnerable communities going to benefit?

My hope is that the film spurs on a dynamic dialogue about these issues that actually leads to legitimate and positive change for communities like Marmato.