A muddy, trash-lined path snakes up a mountainside 18,000 feet about sea level in La Rinconada, Peru—the highest human settlement on Earth. Gold miners in hardhats and baggy canvas trudge wearily along this path as twilight gives way to pitch-dark night. The camera assumes a downward view, cramming the weave of the walkway into the widescreen frame so that it rises to the left in the foreground, tapers off to the right, and slopes toward the middle where there’s a murky vanishing point. And with the exception of a handful of pre-credit establishing shots of snow-capped villages, this optically complicated but rather dramatically monotonous shot—over which the non-synchronous sounds of laborer monologues and regional radio programs are heard—constitutes the entire first hour of Salomé Lamas’s Eldorado XXI, seemingly aligning the filmmaker’s project with the durational landscape films of James Benning and Sharon Lockhart.
When the shot ends, however, Lamas steers a left turn into Michael Glawogger territory, opting to embark on an ethnographic survey of the downtrodden lives previously only represented at arm’s length. The film’s second hour ends up a far richer contemplation of the community at its center without needing recourse to flagrantly “contemplative” aesthetic distancing. Many of the landscape shots scattered throughout this latter section do a more dynamic, and efficient, job of representing the realities of this stratospheric existence than the lengthy nocturnal trudge of the film’s first half; one arresting panorama captures the scattered activity inside the shantytown at night, where a welder’s sparks animate the left corner of the frame and miners fresh off a day’s work navigate patches of snow and ice like sleepwalkers in a Pedro Costa film. And despite its initial rigidity, Lamas’s style continually yields surprises like a shock cut to a hip-hop dance party around a bonfire, a blink-and-you-miss-it glimpse of dogs roughhousing, or a front-row view of a boisterous marching band playing to a crowd of worshippers.
La Rinconada’s citizens are fascinating, too, and especially when they’re heard as well as seen. A stopover at a modest ladies’ night inside a poorly insulated apartment makes us witness to sardonic conversations on topics such as smoking (“We will die anyway,” one woman submits) and local politics (“No matter who it is, they’ll all cheat us,” another protests) to the various hazards of seeking gold in a community where crime-patrolling is in short supply. As for these defeatist attitudes, those seem to run rampant: At one point, a small labor union meeting is tripped up by the general apathy of its members as well as a disagreement on whether the gathering qualifies as “extraordinary” or “ordinary.” But it’s to Lamas’s credit that she perseveres in seeking out beacons of hope and communitarianism. As Eldorado XXI parts on a public celebration where the lyrics “In a glass of beer I will kill this sadness” underscore a group tango, Lamas seems to have arrived at the understanding, despite needlessly complicating the path, that these frontier outcasts unite in mutual acknowledgment of their misery.