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Altiplano directed by Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth (review)
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The Spanish term altiplano translates to English as “high Andean plateau,” which is the key setting of Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth’s 2009 feature film of the same name. Altiplano takes place in a remote, fictitious Peruvian village called Turubamba, which has been overwhelmed by a transnational mining company interested in extracting the rich gold deposits near the village. This same company has also polluted Turubamba’s water supply by carelessly disposing of the mercury canisters used to extract the gold. The indigenous people of Turubamba do not initially know that mercury is poisonous and many become sick and die after drinking the contaminated water. They eventually protest against the mining company’s unjust practices.

Brosens and Woodworth began their film careers as documentarians (Brosens made the well received State of Dogs, set in Mongolia, in 1998 and Woodworth made The Virgin Diaries, set in Morocco, in 2002). Perhaps as a result, Altiplano, the duo’s second foray into feature filmmaking, has something of a documentary sensibility: the film’s mercury spill is loosely based on a similar spill in Choropampa, Peru, in 2000. In fact, a 2003 documentary by Cabellos and Boyd called Choropampa would make an excellent companion viewing to Altiplano. Because of its pertinence to modern themes such as globalization, resource extraction, “sustainable” development, and indigenous rights, and because of the symbolic and aesthetic richness of the film, Altiplano would make excellent viewing for scholars and in the classroom.

But the film is not a documentary, nor is it even a typical environmental melodrama, with clearly demarcated villains and victims. The vaguely geographical title Altiplano is a general term describing a type of Andean space rather than the name of a specific village; the film is meant to be a reflection on the impacts of colonialist resource extraction on indigenous Andean peoples broadly construed, rather than a fictionalization of what occurred in Choropampa specifically. Similarly, Altiplano is much more than a political statement; it is also a beautifully crafted, lyrical reflection on the globalized relationships that connect victims across continents, foment misunderstanding, and provide opportunities both for tragedy and healing across cultural contexts.

Altiplano features a series of symbolic twinnings that weave together throughout the film. One of two major narrative threads tells the story of Saturnina, a young woman who is charged with taking care of the village’s Virgin Mary and who is enthusiastically preparing to marry her love Ignacio. Tragically, Ignacio falls ill from mercury poisoning and eventually succumbs; Saturnina mourns him by first organizing a protest against the polluting mining company, and then by poisoning herself to death, in protest, at the film’s end. Brosens comments in the film’s promotional materials that he studied many such “suicide protests” among indigenous peoples while he traveled and worked in South America; perhaps as a result, the film has an anthropological quality to it without seeming voyeuristic. But Saturnina’s suicide can also be seen as a nod to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and as a commentary on the unjust dealings of those in power. Clearly, the film’s sympathies lie with the victims of mining and careless environmental degradation.

The filmmakers cut back and forth between Saturnina’s narrative and the story of Grace, an Iranian photographer who is haunted by the loss of her Iraqi translator, a young man who was shot in front of her during the Iraq war, and whose last living moment she caught on camera. A large, still photo on her wall shows him, arms splayed out to the side, as the bullet enters his body and he falls to the ground. The photo is set to win a Pulitzer Prize for war reporting, but Grace will not release it, and struggles with a deep depression as a result of her experience in Iraq. Meanwhile, her doting Belgian husband Max, an eye surgeon, regretfully departs for the Peruvian Andes, where he is scheduled to work a stint in a cataract clinic. Max is eventually caught up in an impromptu protest in Turubamba, where he is killed by a stone thrown by a villager—perhaps Saturnina. Caught in an endless cycle of grief, Grace makes a pilgrimage...

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