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Cartagena Film Festival: Mark Grieco, One of Four Americans Making Colombian Films

Cartagena Film Festival: Mark Grieco, One of Four Americans Making Colombian Films

During the Cartagena International Film Festival (FICCI), the winner of three (3!) prizes here for Audience Favorite, Best Director and Best Picture, was Marmato by Mark Grieco.  This is a well told story of universal appeal about mine workers in Colombia, some of whom came for the world premiere of an eye-opening, thought-provoking and empowering movie.

Marmato was work-shopped twice at Sundance labs and it premiered at Sundance this January 2014 (ISA: Ro*co, U.S. contact Ben Weiss at Paradigm). This is a movie which could be used for motivation and film training beyond its traditional viewing stations.

Mark Grieco was having his first experience living and backpacking through Latin America and working as a photographer.  After one year, he arrived in Potosi, a world-known silver mine in Bolivia which was the main source of silver when the Spanish began their rape of the Latin American land.  Known as Rich Mountain or Cerro Rico because the mountain seemed to be made of silver. , Founded in 1545 as a mining town, Potosi soon produced fabulous wealth, becoming one of the largest cities in the Americas and the world, with a population exceeding 200,000 people.  The riches were shipped to Panama City and from there went to Spain in the 16th Century.  

In Spanish there is still a saying, vale un Potosí, “to be worth a Potosí” (that is, “to be of a great value”).   

Part of the tourist industry there today is to give coco leaves and cigarettes to the miners in exchange for taking a photograph with them.   It struck him so hard that he refused to take any photos.  However, he became very interested in mining and he started to search for a place where there is still mining that is not owned by a big corporation. 

And so, Mark discovered Marmato, a small town still using the traditional methods to mine for gold which cycles into the local economy and benefits the community.  At some point, a big Canadian company with an interest in buying up all the mines around.  The layout of the town is built so that all doors open toward the mountain which has a value of $20 billion in gold.  But to get at it, one would need to use open pit mining, removing the mountain in effect and getting rid of the whole town in the process.  At a town meeting a percentage of the people were OK with that and a percentage did not want to leave.  A confrontation was pending, and he was a photographer taking pictures.  He returned to the U.S. in 2008, saved some money and moved back to film the confrontation one-and a-half years later.  During the first filming he worked in TV and had no film experience.  During the following five-and-a-half years he was there, he learned that the Canadians were there; most miners sold to them at very low prices.  Before all this, previously another Canadian company, Corona had bought the mines and failed, so the miners who had sold to Corona got their land back.  They expected the same to happen this time but…

The 5 1/2 years of shooting gave Mark the chance to understand what he had been grappling with throughout his travels; the disparity between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, and the mining roots in colonial cities like Potosi and Marmato.  He had seen the end results and had never seen a film about it, about the process, who is involved in a way that was not about victims and evil-doers.  To see and to understand something while making a film about it gives one plenty of time to become an expert.  For the first 1 1/2 years of filming he would travel away every 2 months, returning to N.Y. for 2 or 3 months, and then returning.  Then he realized he had to be there everyday and so he moved there permanently and he filmed in the mine everyday with the miners as they rose and went into the mine.  Sometimes he shoveled and didn’t film to gain the trust and experiencing the essence of being a miner.  This changed and shaped his perspective in many ways.  He originally had a simplified and reductive pov but as he learned more about the complexity of the situation he realized there was no “right” answer.  

At first he looked for the pluses and the minuses of the situation but in the end he was more in the middle.  He hopes to see and start an unusual dialogue with the film.  The audience in Cartagena had a great reaction at its Sundance premiere where much of the Q&As were about the interest in how Marmato is now and how they might get involved.  In Cartagena, he brought four of the main miners in the movie to see the film and a great discussion ensued.

The mission of the film is to give voice to those who are the least heard.  His own filmmaker’s voice is the least important. 

The miners saw it, audiences applauded and the Colombians asked how it was possible that they had never heard about any of this before the film.  The miners think the film is a great tool is great for them especially because the media does not talk at all about them.  The film needs distribution in Colombia on a big screen.  Even the miners said that it needs to be seen on the big screen.  It is now a typical documentary; Marmato is a unique town and is the essence of their lives.

Another possible form of distribution is traveling the film festivals, though he wants to stay in Colombia with his wife who he met through a mutual friend and married shortly after.  They now live in Medellin, about four hours from Marmato where he has spent months on end in the town and he thinks he could take a break of a couple days.  

Mark says there is an endless amount of stories there yet to be told.  Everyone only sees the bad things and large scale mining is a new phenomenon.  La Guajira, the largest open pit coal mine since the 1980s but more money is now pouring in since the country seems more secure.  Large corporations are spending bilions just in explorations.  Even the people in Marmato see the positive side to big companies, depending of course, on their stage of life, etc.  The town is divided.  And the big company is not living up to its promises; flipping companies has cause a greater division.  Resistance (marches and protests) is not politically useful.  These miners are resisting the corportation through working.  The Canadians co-own 90% of the mines and they closed them down leaving 800 to 1,000 miners wihtout work.  However, the workers have returned to the mines, mining and selling s before and this work is their way of resisting.  They are seen as squatters, but the miners believe the company lost its rights to the mine by not using them.  Legally, the subsoil of Colombia belongs to the state.  Only the houses above the land are owned.  The State Equals The People.  The law states that during the first six months of purchase, the owner must produce out of the mine and give 4% royalty to the government.  There are also state taxes and the minors pay that from their sales.  The state has an interest and there is a mining code.  The Company states that it too has been paying taxes.

Miners are seeing the State as a betrayer of miners. Colombia President Santos says that mining companies are part of the new locomotive of the country; mining and energy are the new locomotives.  The state owns the gold.  The workers could work the mine for the next decade or so or the Canadians could remove all the gold in 20 years.  The State wants fast returns.  The Canadian companies also get tax rebates (as filmmakers do as well) so their 4% tax is nullified by the rebate.  The people themselves of Colombia are therefore the ones paying with their own taxes and rebates to bring in international companies to take their resources out of their country, out of their own economy.

The film does not explain this.  The film takes a more humanistic approach to 500 years of culture about to be dynamically changed.  The story is told through the voice and lives of the people to capture audiences who will become interested in the complex issues by connecting to the people.  The film is not an essay on mining in Colombia; it is more of a portrait of the people of Marmato, the region and town and the problem.

Mark is finding support as Colombian, U.S. and Canadian companies and institutions are aligning to make the first steps in what will be a long journey.  The chance the film gives to the miners to see the film and talk to audiences has empowered them.  They are seeing themseves as articulate and emphatic and are getting their issues across to audiences.

Mark will be making more films…he can’t stay there forever but he will always make films with a social action agenda attached.

Once a film receives some funding, the rest followed.  Marmato received funding from the Ford Foundation, Mac Arthur Foundation, Sundance, Cinereach, the Fledgling Fund and Brit Doc. Their reaction and involvement helps to crystallize what film can do as cinematic explorations of social issues.  At first it is quite difficult to get funding.  90% of the work he did was grant writing and finding funds.  One must have money to make money but once someone else is supportive financially, the others come on board.  

Just when they needed the help as they started post, 5 years into the film, during the last year, Sundance and Sky Ranch stepped offering the Sundance Music and Editing Labs as Sky Ranch offered help with the sound design and final mix.  Once Sundance came on board, everything changed from riding rinky-dink buses across the Andes alone to being the next week at Sky Ranch.  Later he went to a Producers Summit where he connected with agents and other producers.  At the very end of post-production he did a Kickstarter campaign in which Stuart Reid gave $45,000. Their international sales agent is Annie Rooney of Ro*co.  They are now negotiating with a North American distributor through Ben Weiss of Paradigm Agency.  They are also exploring festivals with audiences to harness their reactions;  On board are Cleveland International, Ashland, River Run and others.  Yale shows the film and Mark talks to their Law School’s class on international law where there is a broad presence of international companies.  Universities, law schools, international business all have uses for this film.

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In upcoming blogs, we will talk about the other two Colombian films made by gringos, Manos Sucias by Josef Wladyka, a film with great pedigrees, directed, produced and shot by a team who have received the highest film and business educations from Tisch and Stern Schools at NYU, and Parador Hungaro by Patrick Alexander and Aseneth Suarez Ruiz, a work of passion made with love and sweat.  We already covered the  uniquely beautiful and soulful study of a small part of the underbelly of the underworld in Medellin Mambo Cool by Chris Gude.

This Article is related to: Interviews