Marmato: Sundance Review

MARMATO Sundance Film Still - H 2014

MARMATO Sundance Film Still - H 2014

Sympathetic account of beleaguered small-town residents doesn’t muster enough material to prove entirely persuasive.

A Canadian corporation betrays its intent to destroy a small Colombian town in this scrappy documentary.

A traditional Colombian mountain community goes up against a Canadian multinational gold-mining company in Mark Grieco’s social-issue documentary, Marmato. A sober tone and absence of U.S. connections could potentially impede theatrical opportunities, but festivals will welcome this spirited documentary, and Spanish-speaking audiences worldwide could eventually tune in on digital or broadcast platforms.

Situated in the central Colombian Andes, Marmato is a town of fewer than 10,000 people that’s been focused for the past 500 years on mining gold using "traditional" methods -- which might also be described as "antiquated," primarily employing equipment from the last century, much of it operated by hand. Dynamite is the key tool employed to extract some of the estimated $20 billion in ore that lies beneath the town’s steep streets and humble homes.

Apparently most of the mines were originally locally held, with the owners hiring contract laborers to work the plentiful veins of gold that constitute one of the few remaining major reserves worldwide. Such a wealth of raw resources attracts a great deal of interest, however, which results in the Canadian gold mining corporation Gran Colombia Gold, previously known as Medoro, obtaining government approval in 2006 for a massive mining project. Despite the company’s patently ridiculous claim that it’s "environmentally and socially sustainable," open-pit mining is one of the most destructive extractive processes used in the industry today. So much so that the proposed project would reduce Marmato’s gold-bearing mountain to a deep scar in the earth and force the relocation of the entire town.

At first, Marmato’s local mine owners seem content to sell their holdings to the Canadians, perhaps unsuspecting of the outcome of their opportunism, but as the scope of the project becomes clear and the destruction of the town and its centuries of history more certain, resistance develops among the locals. A standoff ensues, forcing Gran Colombia Gold to idle its holdings while the resident miners illegally extract the valuable ore. With the government on the Canadian company’s side, taking the debilitating step of forcing reductions in mine activity by cutting off dynamite sales, protests erupt in Marmato and a confrontation between the townspeople and their foreign adversaries, as well as the Canadian’s Colombian political proxies, appears inevitable.

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Shot over six years of escalating tensions, Grieco’s conspicuously episodic narrative (repetitiously threaded together with graphics and onscreen titles describing ongoing developments) makes no effort to disguise its partisan support for the residents of Marmato. Indeed, his profiles of local miners and townspeople are well-observed, sympathetically portraying dedicated laborers struggling to support their families and neighbors with hope, humor and determination.

Grieco also seems to share the perspective of many human rights advocates aligned with supporting the local and indigenous peoples of the Americas in their struggles against multinational corporations and financial institutions. And while the people of Marmato might rightly feel targeted by both types of entities, most methods of gold mining have inherently destructive impacts on surrounding ecosystems and working miners, evidenced here by landslides creeping down the area’s shaft-riddled hills. These issues seem to get short shrift in Grieco’s account of Marmato’s travails, however. Also familiar are the practiced methods that major extractive industries have used worldwide to divide and undermine local communities by buying up local resources and influencing elected officials.

An experienced photojournalist, Grieco has great visual instincts for framing shots and following his story. Besides the affecting accounts of Marmato residents’ financial and personal struggles, he somehow obtains a level of remarkably free access to Gran Colombia Gold’s representatives that would give many corporate PR flacks a coronary. Over the time period depicted in the film, onscreen graphics show the price of gold first skyrocketing, then plummeting, as the fortunes of the town and its corporate adversary also wax and wane, demonstrating the global economic forces that are fundamentally at work behind all the turmoil in resource-rich towns like Marmato.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, US Documentary Competition
Director: Mark Grieco Screenwriters: Mark Grieco, Stuart Reid
Producers: Stuart Reid, Mark Grieco
Executive Producer: Mark Achbar, Peter Starr
Director of photography: Mark Grieco
Music: Todd Boekelheide
Editors: Ricardo Acosta, Mark Grieco
Sales: Paradigm
No rating, 87 minutes.