Marmato, a Colombian village of less than 10,000 people founded in 1540, is and has always been a mining town. There really was never any choice, since the village sits on about twenty billion dollars of gold, as the mountain under the village houses one of the world’s largest gold reserves. Director Mark Grieco discovered Marmato in 2006 while photo-touring around South America and was fascinated by the oddity of Marmato. These days, most mining towns have been taken over by (or have since been abandoned by) large mining companies. But Marmato was a mining town still locally operated, full of a proud and hard-working people.
When Grieco moved to Marmato two years later to begin single-handedly filming this documentary, however, the story began to shift. Over the next four years, Grieco found himself documenting the explosive clash that results from a massive corporation coming in to take things over. In 2008, when Marmato starts, we meet a town still relatively untouched by corporate dominance. A year later, the Canadian corporation Medoro owns 80 percent of the mines and the lines for several battles are drawn. Thus, the documentary quickly becomes one of corporate dominance over local independence. Marmato does little to try to hide its own point of view, which is squarely with the village, and it is within the context of this fight that it is easiest to sympathize with Marmato over Medoro (which would eventually merge with other entities, ones with close Colombian governmental ties, to become Gran Colombia Gold).
Most of the people the film spends its time with are locals, the most memorable probably being Jose Dumar, a miner raised on the streets of Medellín who is just trying to make ends meet for his wife and two adorable daughters. One of Dumar’s probably steals the film in a moment both funny and heartbreaking - in 2010 segment she is asked about what’s going on with the mines and responds by stating, “Marmato is coming to an end … let me ask my dad why.” It’s not hard to sympathize with Dumar, or with the local mine and mill owners, or with any of the other Marmato residents we meet throughout the film.
It is rather hard to sympathize with the corporate folks, particularly given the two talking heads who are the film’s primary representatives of this side of things. The head of the corporate drill team, who moves into the town to run drilling tests and figure out how to level the mountain, is a boorish pig, and the corporate executive spewing of capitalist pride from his city high-rise condo is just a pig. Both elicit uncomfortable audience laughter and some of the heinous things that come out of their mouth, and the viewer cannot help but root against them, particularly given Medoro/Gran Colombia Gold’s strong-arm tactics, such as getting new regulations passed that make it a an act of terrorism to own dynamite, thereby choking out private miners’ ability to continue their business and forcing most of them to shut down and giving rise to Gaucheros, unemployed illegal miners who break into and work the abandoned mines.
But the conflict of the corporation versus the locals is not the only fight documented here, and in these other battles, there is much more nuance that makes it harder to easily sympathize with the village against the big and evil corporation. For example, despite living on a mountain of gold, Marmato is a poor village. As the miner Dumar notes, “we’re the last ones to benefit from this.” The corporations coming in and taking things over offer the potential for economic growth for all of Colombia, including Marmato. There are questions of the long-term viability of this economic growth, of course, since the corporation and its flow of income will leave once the mine is dry. And all of this is at conflict with Marmato nostalgia, as the villagers will have to give up their homeland, because Gran Colombia Gold wants to create an open-pit mine, requiring the village to be relocated to a valley so that the mountain can be leveled. Marmato also touches on the fact that the miners’ way of doing things is incredibly unsafe. They are using centuries’ old methods and as Dumar tells us, “I walk into the mine but I don’t know if I’ll make it out alive.” With Gran Colombia Gold, things will advance to use modern methods which are safer for the minders and village as a whole. On these issues, the documentary’s Marmato sympathies do a disservice, as the film does not really present an even-handed position of some legitimate arguments on the corporate side.
That said, Marmato is still a gripping documentary. Grieco’s lone-camera approach provides an incredible intimacy to everything we’re being shown, from the claustrophobic mines to the small domiciles of the locals to the late-into-the-night negotiation between Gauchero representatives and corporate lawyers (which becomes necessary after a roadblock prevents the corporation from getting into town). As the film closes, we are left with a town in limbo. The corporation, struck by an economic downturn and investor pullouts because of the local unrest, has just barely raised additional capital to keep its fight going. Yet, new laws are being passed to further marginalize the locals, and things in the village appear to be getting more dire and violent. Documentaries like this are important in that they share a story that otherwise goes untold. It is unsurprising that few in America know the name “Marmato,” let alone know anything about this story. But I was surprised to find out that two close friends of mine, Colombians who now live in Miami but have close ties to their homeland and keep up to date on many of the nations’ goings-on, had also never heard of Marmato or this conflict. Perhaps the greatest tragedy enlightened by Marmato is that we may never know the ultimate outcome here. Stories like this are often only told when someone fights to tell them. And with filmmaker Mark Grieco understandably moving on after half-a-decade, one wonders whether there is anyone left to fight for Marmato other than the local residents. And unfortunately for them, the answer to that question is aa inevitable as this story’s eventual outcome.
Marmato had its world premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.