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Copper Ore, Silver Screen

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Issue: 55 Section: Literature & Ideas Geography: Canada, Latin America Guatemala Topics: Mining, film

November 23, 2008

Copper Ore, Silver Screen

Under Rich Earth

by Matthew J. Trafford

Marcia Ramirez confronts paramilitaries at the Junin control post, December 1, 2006. Malcolm Rogge's film, Under Rich Earth, documents one Ecuadorian village's battle against Canadian mining. Photo: Liz Weydt

TORONTO–Under Rich Earth (Bajo Suelos Ricos), which world-premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, is a documentary about the very small town of Junin in the Intag valley in Ecuador. It is also a film about the very large – and Canadian – mining company (Ascendant Copper) that wants to move into the valley and build a mine.

The film documents Ascendant sending hired thugs to threaten and intimidate the anti-mining townspeople, while the government in the capital city of Quito responds sluggishly, and the Chairman of the company leaves phone messages saying that nothing is wrong and that the majority of the local people fully support the project.

Ministry of Energy and Mines officials and international press in Junin on December 9, 2006. Rogge's film crew lived in the village while making the documentary, winning the trust of "anti-mine" residents, and the ire of "pro-mine" locals. Photo: Liz Weydt

Which turns out to be at least partially true.

The town of Chalguayaco Alto, down the road from Junin, is pro-mine – and this difference leads to some heated violence and animosity between the two towns. Two journalists from French Press Agency (AFP) were held in Chalguayaco Alto, along with representatives from the regional council of Cotacachi. Director Malcolm Rogge says: "The risk of physical harm was very real and I took all precautions necessary to preserve my security while getting as much of the story as I could."

In addition, Ascendant Copper, while they granted an interview with General Manager Francisco Veintimilla, refused to allow on-camera interviews with the CEO or Chairman of the company.

Given these circumstances, it's more or less understandable if the film feels a little bit one-sided at times.

The filmmakers were obviously incredibly close to their subjects, so much so that they were entrusted with recordings of local radio broadcasts and camcorder footage of some of the illegal attacks on mine protesters, as well as photographic evidence.

Incorporating this material into the movie is a great technique for corroborating the Junin people’s story of what happened there, and documenting the actions of the armed paramilitaries who were sent into the area to intimidate those against the mine. The use of this “found” material, however, also serves to further embed the eye of the film in the community of Junin, and distances the audience further from the pro-mine perspective.

The limited perspective available to the filmmakers contrasts with the 'objective observer' tone of the film.

"I think it would have been difficult for any non-Ecuadorian journalist with a camera to maintain the perception of neutrality during that time," said Rogge.

It might have been helpful if the viewer had some idea of this and the reasons behind it (American filmmakers, and European and North American human rights observers, had been in the anti-mining community the previous year). As it was, questions about how the filmmakers discovered this story, found these people and gained their trust so completely are left largely unanswered by the film itself.

Questions of perspective aside, what’s incredible about the movie – other than the cinematography itself and intimate access into people’s lives – is the structural device Rogge uses.

He starts the film with camcorder footage of an armed shoot-out between pro- and anti-mining factions, then moves back in time to fill in the story up to that point, and then forward past it. This cyclic structure lends momentum and drive to the film, which helps provide a clear sense of narrative while simultaneously presenting the different events and accounts of events in the film.

But most remarkable of all is the outcome of the documented struggle: the mining is disallowed, setting a historical precedent, helping to shape Ecuador’s national policy and inspiring other communities to fight against global mining companies.

For once, the people triumph, and the film – which belongs so deeply to these people – is a triumph too.

Matthew J. Trafford works with deaf college students and writes in Toronto.

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