Culture, Latin America, Screen

Peruvian gold: the price of innocent flesh

A mining town at 5,000 metres for decades has been a centre of exploitation of poor workers, trying to jump-start their lives. Prostitution is rife often involving underage girls. Matteo Tortone’s film “Mother Lode” investigates the myths and the exploitation through the eyes of a 13-yr old miner.


Graham Douglas


When I was in Bolivia in 2007, I read a newspaper report about a place called La Rinconada just over the border in Peru. It described how shops trading normally during daytime, opened brothels upstairs at night, and how many girls, often underage, were attracted by promises of normal work advertised in Peru and Bolivia.

The problem has continued with no apparent serious interest by the Peruvian authorities in this remote village. La Rinconada is officially the highest inhabited place in the world, but is not likely to be featured in tourist magazines.

A new film by Matteo Tortone, “Mother Lode” was shot in the village and presents mining work and its traditional customs to illustrate his thesis that the human body is a commodity whose value and hence its exploitation, oscillates with the price of gold, and inversely with the fortunes of stock markets. Jose the main character, portrays his life in the mining village starting at age 13, a life balanced between the magical thinking of traditional rituals and the daily reality of harsh work.

Illegal goldmining also takes place in the Peruvian amazon, involving trafficking, but there the exploitation is at least receiving attention from the authorities.

The Prisma discussed the film with the director at some length to clarify his interest in making a film that is both art and documentary.

Your previous films (“White men” and “On opposite fields”) were also documentaries on marginalized people. Why did you want to make this film?

“Mother Lode” is the culmination of a research path of more than ten years, on which “White men” and “On opposite fields” are two relevant stages.

Cinema as an art form does not necessarily follow a linear logic. I began from a personal speculation on the collision between Agamben’s reflection on sacredness, and the concept of the state of exception, the collective experience in the Accelerationist Manifesto and the concept of Capitalist Realism formulated by Mark Fisher.

“White men” tells the daily life of some albino people in Tanzania during a very bloody period in which a market for “pieces of bodies of albino people” had developed. The film, while immersing the viewer in specific reality, reflects on the awareness that one’s body has a direct economic value, and that man becomes prey.

“On opposite fields” speaks of Italian agriculture organized around structured camps of seasonal workers, mostly migrants. I was interested in the existential suspension induced by the “camp” as a state of exception. Only partially a state of exception, given that our cities, our villages, are almost sprinkled with camps.

“Mother Lode”, on the other hand, arises from an illumination that I had – which I believe is obvious for a lot of people – an inversely proportional movement corresponds to every endemic economic crisis: the price of gold increases.

Matteo Tortone

I learned in Tanzania that this implies a movement of hundreds of thousands of people, millions on a global scale, a real gold rush. I wanted to tell its story by immersing myself in it.

My cinematographic experience makes two assumptions: in a global world, cinema must also be global, through the concept of deterritorialization expressed by Deleuze and Guattari. Specific issues and “extreme” places can clarify and elaborate, through a metaphorical process, the broader problems of contemporary man.

And I believe that the point of view of marginalized people is very significant because they are often stripped of superstructures, masks or social roles to defend.

But this analytical reflection on my cinema was not sufficient for its realization. What drives me is the need to create empathy, to place my body (and consequently the viewer) in the same places and in the same dynamics of the characters of my films. A physical necessity.

“Mother Lode” is not an expose of exploitation of the workers and women. Were your primary interests intellectual and aesthetic?

Primarily my interest was looking for a universal story about the relationship between Human Beings and Money. I choose to look for it in Lima and La Rinconada. Then I met Jose, and I loved his old short novels about his first experience in a gold mine. I thought it should be a story to share with the world.

I think the film shows the exploitation of the workers and women, of the soil, the water very clearly.

The same film tells as many stories as the number of the people who watch it. That is amazing. It is not my film now, it is yours.

Others have reported that people not connected with the mines are not even allowed on the buses that go to there.

We spent 4-years working. An exceptional work by Andrea Balice, as regards the first part of the film, and Ladoysca Romero who instead dealt exclusively with La Rinconada. Ladoysca Romero is an activist of Amnesty International Peru and she works for the NGO Muyuy “Tejiendo Tribu”

In our first trip in 2016, we were able to build relationships with the people, explain that our intent was to make a film together and not to steal images of them. It was a very complex diplomatic job.

Did you meet opposition from various authorities who did not want to appear at fault?

It is more an issue of relationship with people than with authorities, the institutions are made by people who live there. If you can communicate that you want to share an experience with the people and to live there with them as they live, it becomes just a horizontal relationship. Ladoysca is a very professional cultural mediator, who transformed the possibility of an opposition from various authorities into a “simple” logistic problem.

A special role was played by the administration of Cerro Lunar, one of the two municipalities that composed La Rinconada settlement, and by the city councilor Jhon Chambi who appears in the film. The Pallaqueras is a womens’ collective who work extracting gold from the mine waste. Mostly, they are single women often with children, abandoned by their husbands, or who left the mechanisms of prostitution and human trafficking.

Despite the impossible place and working conditions. They want to be a community. And they need to be listened to, to speak, to tell their story themselves freely. Instead, they are often told by others.

How did you meet the miner whose life is filmed?

I met Jose in 2016, thanks to Andrea Balice who involved the Peruvian poet Feliciano Mejia in the project. We were looking for a seasonal miner who could link the mines to the Capital, a boy capable of having an extremely practical thought but also a poetic soul and an abstract thinker at the same time. Feliciano has for years curated creative writing and poetry workshops in the suburbs of Lima.

It was an illuminating encounter. His family were thrilled to be part of the film. With Jose we worked out together the core of the narrative and the parable of his character. From his real experience when he started working in a gold mine aged 13.

What is a pagacho? Do these human sacrifices really happen?

The pagacho or the pago a la tierra is a very ancient ritual, still practiced in many areas. It is a ritual of thanksgiving to the earth and the request for a blessing to obtain a good harvest. Farmers offer thanks to the Pachamama.

In the mining sector, however, there is another supernatural anthropomorphic figure who governs the subsoil, associated with the Devil, to whom offerings are made. It is a widespread figure throughout the region between Mexico and Bolivia. Michael Taussig, an Australian anthropologist produced the study: The devil and commodity fetishism in South America”. It talks about the various demonic figures and the various rituals connected in the gold mining sector. The ritual ends with a large banquet, plenty of alcohol, music and dance.

The aim is to obtain the benevolence of this demoniac figure so that the gold vein widens and there is more gain for everyone. The bigger the offering, the greater will be the gratitude of the Devil. And the most valuable offering is the human life. This is how human sacrifice exists.

(Photos provided by Matteo Tortone and authorized for publication)

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