No stranger to the intrepid, Portuguese filmmaker Salomé Lamas has, over an expanding, deeply ambitious body of shorts, installations and features, traversed many worlds. Before reaching her thirtieth birthday, Lamas has transported viewers to locales extreme and unseen - charting, in her early place portraits, Portugal’s oldest camping park in A Comunidade / The Community (2012) and one of its more remote territories, the autonomous Azores archipelago in Encounters with Landscape 3X (2012); excavating dilapidated interiors (both architectural and psychological) in the bruising, complex interview films made in Lisbon, Terra De Ninguém / No Man’s Land (2013) and Berlin, Le Boudin (2014); before moving to more inconceivable and implacable territories, such as those seen and sensed in the seaside setting of archaeological meta-investigation Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (2013), or deep in Moldova’s forests in man-landscape relationship puzzle A Torre / The Tower (2015) - bucking conventions and testing limits with each new foray. Forthcoming projects have taken her even wider afoot, to contested republic Transnistria for Extinção / Extinction (2017); and into the fantastic and imagined - creating a fictional utopia for Ubi Sunt I - III (2017) or exploring the “physical experience of reality” through the terraforming, metaphorical topography of Coup de Grâce (2017). However, the most treacherous and stupendous space visited will likely remain that of her stunning second feature Eldorado XXI (2016), La Rinconada.

The highest elevation permanent settlement in the world, perched 5500m atop the Peruvian Andes, La Rinconada is home to a populous, deeply impoverished community of gold-miners. Receiving their pay only in the ore they can carry, they slave en masse in the hope of that one revelatory discovery that will lift them and their family from destitution. This salvation is nigh on impossible, their drudgery unending, and the brutish commitment made to this most unforgiving of work seemingly misplaced; yet they continue, fools banking on a corrupt system. This illusion ties content with form, linking the delusion of those seen in the film to an enquiry central to Lamas’ work and that of many of her contemporaries - the question of truth, or inversely, the value of what might be called ‘authentic deception’. In an introduction to the book on her practice - ‘PARAFICTION: Selected Works’, Lamas asks: “is truth an illusion, is illusion a truth, or are they exactly the same thing?” Each of her films ask this too. Rooted in theory but grounded in reality, all are concerned with the codes by which filmmaking operates, whilst suggesting a desire to work outside of an obligation to veracity; an approach Lamas calls “the politic of make-believe”. A graduate of both art and cinema, Lamas makes films that are born out of thought but versed in practicality, beginning with concepts before experimenting upon them. She probes her subjects, interrogates the landscape, and examines how the two interact as much as her role in making them do so. It is Eldorado XXI, described by Lamas as “a critical practice media parafiction attempt”, that may be seen as the culmination of this ‘theory into praxis’ methodology. Merging a ‘sensory ethnography’ approach with something more theoretical, the imposition of structure lends life to the film rather than restricting it.

After an opening series of gorgeous panoramas that serve to place the subsequent action within it’s grand, pictorial setting, Eldorado XXI moves towards epic duration. A dramatic, captivating shot spans the full length of an hour and the passing of day into night. As light fluctuates over a mountainside tableaux depicting the miner’s journey to and from their dig-site, an endless carriage of bodies are seen, becoming increasingly abstracted and amorphous against the landscape as the visible light diminishes. At the same time - but importantly dislocated and non-directly representational - comes a barrage of multilayered, textural sound. Lamas overlays radio snippets, interviews, testimony and conversations, as well as a host of atmospheric recorded and designed sound. Storytelling and mythmaking from the townspeople are blended with that witnessed and captured by Lamas, merging a ‘participatory ethnography’ mode with the filmmaker’s own devices and constructs. The result is a sound canvas layered with the richness of the real whilst remaining free from the constraints of an obligation to representational truth, the participants actively involved in the shaping of their own narrative, with Lamas free to mould and displace it.

In the film’s second half, many of the situations described in the previously heard audio are seen directly, with more traditional material recorded directly and presented as is - sound diegetic, actors present in the frame. Wives gather to swap tales and political discourse; miners battle the land in pursuit of their impossible dream by day and cavort around a fire in drunken abandon by night; and all the while the hostile, monolithic landscape stands silently around them, swallowing villagers, trucks and wildlife indiscriminately. These second act scenes - whilst all depicting a lifestyle that would be considered by most assessments as miserable - are lent, through this bifurcated two-film structure, a richness and warmth by the context understood from the preceding audio of the first act, a veritable tapestry of human testimony for the active viewer to apply to the observed scenarios. While a miner warns viewers early on that “not everything that glitters is gold,” that doesn’t mean the opposite is not true; for Lamas’ films find grace in squalor, complexity in violence, and redemption in misery. The situation in La Rinconada is hopeless, and as the system that condemns these men to labour fruitlessly in pursuit of a sliver of promise is totalising, the likelihood of chancing upon escape from this eternal poverty is minuscule. Yet, what the form of Lamas’ film conveys is that these lives are not built from the value of their toil but from the wealth of their lived experience and the strength of their community. Eldorado XXI is landscape cinema in an empathetic and human mode, a beautiful scrapbook of the texture and flavour of humanity’s inscription upon nature, a culture built out of sacrificial labour, histories hammered into rock. To borrow Lamas’ words again, Eldorado XXI “will carry you on a hallucinatory journey. You will not be indifferent to it.” 

A shorter version of this piece originally appeared in the Frames of Representation 2017 festival booklet.