"Marmato" is Mark Grieco's first feature and he went all-in to deliver one of the best film's I've seen in this year's US Documentary Competition.
 
Over six years, Grieco lived in the Colombian mining village of "Marmato," serving as director, cinematographer and producer, wholly committing to telling the story about globalization, the illusion of progress, the insatiable human desire for riches and the decline of a way of life that is simultaneously woefully outmoded and yet authentic and worth preserving. 
 
Thanks to the duration of his presence in the region, Grieco has been granted a depth of access that allows him to populate the film with compelling and fully realized characters, while his background as a photojournalist has yielded a view of a unique corner of the world, one in which poverty and wealth overlap in the midst of great physical beauty. 
 
"Marmato" is somewhat hampered by telling a story that hasn't reached its conclusion, leading to an abrupt ending, but I liked Grieco's storytelling enough that I would gladly watch a sequel. [Might I suggest "More Mato" as the sequel title? No. I probably should not.]
 
Full review after the break...
 
For 500 years, residents of Marmato, in the Colombian Andes, made the mountain both their work and their home, walking directly from small residences into cramped mines. It wasn't like the gold that filled the mountains was making everybody rich, but at least it was always Colombians exploiting other Colombians. 
 
"Marmato" only hints around the class distinctions that existed in the town and in the country before 2006. The bottom line is that it's better to be exploited when it isn't Canadians doing the exploiting. Yes, "Marmato" is the rare movie in which our nefarious villains are thickly accented Canadians, moving into the region and planning open-pit mine projects that will scoop up the $20 billion remaining in the mountain, leaving neither a mountain, nor Marmato remaining.
 
The Canadians don't expect to be hailed as conquering heroes. That's not the Canadian way. They have, however, made a very polite, computer-animated video that celebrates the environmentally friendly crater they hope to make out of Marmato. In light of that professionally produced propaganda, they're perplexed when the townspeople aren't eager to give up their outmoded mining techniques and low-paying jobs in exchange for advanced mining technology and the decimation of 70 percent of the local workforce. Over five years, protests, illegal outlawed mining, heated legal negotiations and threats of military intervention ensue. Marmato may be on the brink of death, but they're not going out quietly.
 
Per the "Marmato" press notes, the mountain's gold industry employs more than 8000 people and Grieco uses a representative sample as documentary subjects. There's Dumar, a blue collar miner who isn't rich, but has risen from a homeless childhood in Medellin with hopes for the upward mobility of his adorable children. There's Conrado, owner of a very small private mine and holding out for the one big payday that will validate his life of hard work. There's gold processor Johann, a former mayoral candidate made even more political through the Canadian incursion. And then, most awesome of all, there's local troubadour Louis Gonzaga, whose guitar-driven songs focus on gold and a dark vein of fatalism about the town's future.
 
The core "characters" and Louis' songs bridge the long period Grieco was filming and you can sense how his subjects' increased comfort his camera led to increasingly personal and unguarded moments. With Dumar, Grieco was just about to go deep into the mines initially for captivating moments of descents into dark, labyrinthine tunnels, but later with high stakes as he gets to tag along as rogue miners attempt to break through the barricades set up by those darned evil Canadians to keep them out of the shafts. With Conrado, we see his pride at his hard-earned autonomy, but we also meet his wife Lucelly, who is very frank in fearing her husband's love of money and gold.
 
Grieco also came to understand the mechanics of the mining process, which pays off in sequences that just depict the strange world of machinery that takes piles of rocks and turns them into cakes of metallic dirt and then small vials of valuable gold dust. There's a sink-or-swim aspect to how Grieco treats this alien world for viewers. Nobody explains what's happening, but it's simultaneously industrial and beautiful, with flying sparks and molten ore and grinding metallic gears foregrounded against the lush green valley, the steep mountain passes and the rains that verge on Biblical at times. The whole thing is like a Werner Herzog film, man's base desires, juxtaposed with sublime and unconquerable nature. 
 
This is a way of life that's on the verge of death one way or the other. The mines are constantly on the verge of cave-ins that could seemingly take down the entire mountain and the people are constantly struggling. At least when the Canadians start taking over, somebody is about to get rich, even if it's just going to be the gringos. If Marmato won't be around in 10 years anyway, you can get why the foreigners and the corrupt Colombian government are trying to capitalize while they still can. But you can also understand why the indigenous people are fighting for their homes. What else could they do? You feel for the miners as underdogs, but certain things being said by the Company Men make some sense, if only because they're Canadian.
 
The escalation of both power relationships and financial urgency leads to some great moments in the documentary's last third, particularly some glorious headbutting between the attorney representing the unions and the slick Italian lawyer retained by the mining company. That precedes a PR offensive for the company that brings out a hilarious scene with Dumar and his kids. I wish I knew what the story was building to, but Grieco either reached the point at which his money ran out, his patience ran out, or he felt like he had the material for a 100 minute movie. 
 
As it stands, "Marmato" has been cut from five years of filming into a tight movie that gets just enough cinematic heft from Grieco's photographer's eye to avoid being part of that legion of Sundance docs that coast only on the quality of their narrative. This is a good yarn -- unlike so many Sundance docs, it doesn't wear its Importance on its sleeve, even if there's ample thematic heft -- and also a good film.