In the best tradition of documentary cinema, “Choropampa: The Price of Gold” expands on the immediate events it covers — the aftermath of a June 2000 spill of toxic mercury in the Peruvian gold-mining town of Choropampa — to ask larger questions about corporate and government responsibility in Third World regions rich in natural resources but poor in material wealth. Filmmakers Ernesto Cabellos and Stephanie Boyd show how the townspeople stand up for themselves even though the fight appears futile. Pic makes for a fine fest item, but it’s best situated as an educational vid.
Trucks from the Yanacocha gold mine — which is majority-owned by Denver-based Newmont Mining Corp. — accidentally spilled 150 kilograms of poisonous mercury on the main street in Choropampa. In attempting to clean up the spill, the villagers handled the hazardous metal. As a sign of tensions to come, the film shows mining company doctors and locals disputing who touched the mercury and how toxic it actually is.
At every step, the influence of powerful figures far from the Andes can be felt — in the decision to lower risk-factor analysis to rule out a mass evacuation, in Peru’s then-President Alberto Fujimori’s declaration that the contracting trucking company and not Newmont was to blame, etc.
But it’s in the capturing of events and personal conflicts that “Choropampa” delivers its strongest punch. Such fascinating figures as the town’s extremely youthful mayor, Lot Saavedra, emerge from the angry populace to lead with emotional grit, climaxing with a stunning sequence in which he helps organize what looks like the entire town into blocking the road and main transport artery to the mines.
Cabellos and Boyd’s cameras follow Saavedra to the regional capital, where he’s charged with violating the law for leading the blockade and show him later, when his misunderstood actions spur a near-revolt against him by townspeople.
The excitement of what the camera records, however, never detracts from the larger issues, particularly how the Peruvian political and economic systems are profoundly dependent on U.S. corporate interests. Editing is keenly sensitive to the most crucial encounters, conflicts and statements by parties on all sides, and the uncredited narration is consistently unobtrusive.