Salomé Lamas makes unpredictable films. This is true on a nearly microscopic level, down to the intricacies of sound and editing. One never knows how long a shot will last, and the resulting tension dominates many of her images. Sounds come and go, often in a disconnected or even adversarial relationship with what appears on screen. Her films would resemble dreams were they not so formally rigorous, so bluntly cinematic. Their experiments do not hide behind any preconceived notions of how reality should appear. This is true of short works Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, VHS — Video Home System and Encounters with Landscape (3x), all of which had their US premieres this past weekend at Brooklyn’s Union Docs, as well as Eldorado XXI, which made its US premiere this week in New Directors/New Films.
As you might expect, Eldorado XXI is about a remote city of gold, though hardly the paradise of myth. La Rinconada is the highest elevation human habitation in the world, 16,700 feet above sea level in the Peruvian Andes. It has no plumbing and no sanitation system, but it remains crowded because of the precious metal waiting to be collected beneath its mountains. The workers, who are paid infrequently and only based on what gold they manage to find, are struggling to organize themselves. This is a place of last resort, where people come when they’ve no other options left.
The combination of extreme poverty and spectacular landscape offers an abundance of images, many of which exist in stark opposition to one another. Lamas opens her film with breathtaking mountain views, vast expanses of sky above the “Sleeping Beauty” glacier. The town of La Rinconada itself seems minuscule and improbable beneath the peaks, almost as if it had been digitally invented, like something from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. This juxtaposition turns into a major theme by the end of the film, constant reminders of both the smallness of human life and the strange atmosphere brought out by high altitude.
Before that, however, is a tremendous experiment in form. Eldorado XXI features an hour-long shot as its first act, a gambit that dominates everything else. The image is of a serpentine mountain path, along which an endless parade of people descend into the mine. Night falls almost immediately. It becomes nearly impossible to keep track of any individual miner as they trudge back and forth across the screen. Atop of this hypnotic, almost trompe l’oeil image, Lamas weaves an astonishingly intricate soundtrack. There is a deeply emotional interview with a local couple, who came to La Rinconada after losing everything. There are clips from local radio shows, as well as the insistent jingles of Peru’s upcoming presidential election. And there is the sound of human traffic into the earth, the clomping of foot on rock.
Sometimes the disjunct between the endless parade of workers and the soundtrack is enormous. In other moments, it can be hard to discern the origin of a particular sound. It is an entire hour in the near-dark, ample time to reflect on this life. It is both immersive and distancing, a profoundly human experience in which none of the workers’ faces are visible. Its surface simplicity simultaneously compounds its meaning and lulls the viewer into stasis. This makes it something of a shock when it concludes, and Lamas cuts back to the bright and open landscape. It’s like a bucket of ice cold water, frigidly jerking the audience back from the stupor of experience to the more familiar scope of documentary.
After all, the film is only half-over. The ensuing montage has tremendous breadth, including local labor meetings, political discussions, religious processions, and other visually striking aspects of life at the top of the world. To call it vérité wouldn’t be entirely accurate to the spirit of the film, which contains a handful of nearly psychedelic sequences at the tops of peaks where locals gather in masks to light fires and celebrate.
On the one hand, the memory of the hour in the mine inflects all of these other images, the nagging reminder of what really drives life in la Rinconada. Yet the meandering quality of the second half of Eldorado XXI also frays this legacy. There is too much here. The move from formal experiment to less structured ethnography elongates and dissipates some of the film’s power. Much of the second half of the film seems like a slow descent from the rigorous thematic heights of the first half. The last sequence, filmed at a community festival that by all right should feel conclusive, has no sense of culmination. The film simply ends.