The slow fallout of a Colombian gold rush is given detailed, deliberate scrutiny in “Marmato,” a highly conscientious debut feature from erstwhile photojournalist Mark Grieco that is equal parts passion and compassion project. Filmed over six years in the eponymous mining village, a hard-up but minerally rich spot in the remote Colombian Andes brought to its knees by corporate exploitation, the film traces the uncertain, frequently unhappy arcs of selected residents to stirring human effect as their community crumbles around them. PowerPoint-style interludes on the international gold market feel a tad hectoring and redundant by comparison, but this cleanly shot pic will find plenty of sympathizers on the doc-fest circuit. Its relative lack of uplift may concern distribs, though it’s not without lyricism or humor.
“There’s always a price to pay to have it this good,” says one disaffected laborer near the beginning of “Marmato,” referring to his hometown’s status as one of the world’s last great gold reserves: Though it’s been mined for over five centuries, its worth is still estimated at $20 billion. Needless to say, the area’s wealth scarcely trickles down to the miners themselves, who risk their lives daily in return for modest fixed salaries from local businessmen. So when the Colombian government opens the mining industry to foreign investment in 2006, hopes are high for more lucrative employment.
It doesn’t take long for disillusionment to set in, as a Canadian company, Medoro, promptly buys up 88% of the mines in the area and initiates an allegedly eco-friendly open-pit mining scheme that entails mass relocation of homes and, eventually, extensive layoffs. Marking the passing of years with simple, unceremonious title cards, Grieco monitors the gradual collapse of the situation into violence, as Medoro’s mines are barricaded and protesting locals are met with military intervention.
It’s an unexpected and upsetting turn of events, well served by Grieco’s journalistic patience. The director took up residence in Marmato for over five years to document the Medoro (later Gran Colombia Gold) takeover firsthand, and the result is a film with a precise and complex sense of place, picking up not just on administrative changes, but subtler shifts in communal psychology and socioeconomic standing.
A number of Grieco’s chosen subjects — chief among them stoic family men Dumar and Conrado — are sympathetic, but the film largely avoids simple side-taking or us-against-the-man condescension. It’s left to the viewer to determine how valid or honorable the corporation’s redevelopment plans are. One of the film’s strongest scenes finds a proud Dumar arguing with his young daughters over Medoro’s provision of branded school supplies, a seemingly kind gesture that nonetheless points to the company’s infiltration of all aspects of formerly self-sufficient village life.
“Marmato” is at its most effective when it puts such revealing domestic detail to the fore; considering the wealth of footage at his disposal, Grieco is over-reliant on wordy title cards explaining key political developments that could be more narratively evoked. Context is more inventively supplied by a local troubadour, Luis, whose dolefully topical protest songs — “When the price goes up it fills the hearts of those foreigners” is a typical lyric — are scattered through the film, reflecting communal angst like interjections from a grizzled Greek chorus.
Production values are spare but sharp, with Grieco’s own bright HD lensing showcasing (but not romanticizing) the natural Andean beauty of Marmato itself. Grieco and co-editor Ricardo Acosta evidently had their work cut out for them assembling six years’ worth of footage into a consistent, linear narrative that maintains long-term personal testimony against a wider political backdrop. Digital graphics that illustrate the fluctuating value of gold in the global market seem an unnecessary intrusion on this otherwise organic exercise.