Two years ago, Choropampa, Peru, was a quiet, isolated village in the Andes, and the local residents seemed content to keep it that way. But, the town’s serenity came to an end on June 2, 2000, when a truck from a U.S.-owned gold mine overturned on a highway passing through Choropampa, spilling 151 kilograms of liquid mercury. In the days and months that followed, the battle to have the mining company recognize the spill’s long-term implications – for both the villagers’ health and their surrounding environment – transformed peaceful people into angry activists.
Along the way, Lima, Peru-based prodco Guarango Film and Video, which specializes in environmental films, has been recording Choropampa’s story. Stephanie Boyd, a Canadian journalist who moved to Peru five years ago and joined Guarango soon after, initially went to the village in August 2000. Her plan was to write a newspaper article about the incident, but she soon decided the story should be told as a documentary. ‘I thought I would have a problem finding people who would talk to me, because I was coming in as a complete stranger,’ she recalls. ‘[But,] everyone wanted to tell their stories. So, that’s what made me think the story merited more than just a newspaper article.’
Boyd returned with Guarango founder Ernesto Cabello in November and filmed Choropampa, The Price of Gold on and off over the next six months. She says the short and medium-term effects of mercury poisoning – rashes, vomiting, impaired vision, central nervous system disorders, respiratory problems and kidney trouble – were already apparent. And, while medical experts hired by the mine contended that any health problems associated with exposure to mercury would be short term, Boyd says it’s clear the villagers’ health has continued to deteriorate. The only compensation the mining company had offered as of March 2001 was individual settlements varying between US$600 and $6,000, which 720 people grudgingly accepted.
While the villagers have willingly told their side of the story to Boyd and Cabello, the mining company has not. Boyd says the company president repeatedly refused to be interviewed for the documentary, but she still managed to get him on tape this past summer. She explains: ‘We had finished the editing and were just doing some final sound work, when the foreign press association announced that there would be a roundtable with the president of the mining company on business issues. So, we went to it with a camera, got in and surprised him.’
The doc-makers are currently working on Price of Gold’s ending, which illustrates the long-term health issues now becoming apparent. They expect to be completely finished the 70 or 75-minute film by September. They have so far received 40% of the US$90,000 budget from oxfam, 15% from the Canadian Auto Workers Social Justice Fund and about one percent from the United Steel Workers of Canada Humanities Fund, in addition to contributing their own money. Their goal is to take Price of Gold on the international festival circuit in 2003.
Although the film is not yet complete, Boyd and Cabello have already shown a version of Price of Gold to the Peruvian Congress, which resulted in the establishment of a committee to investigate the mercury spill. Some call this advocacy filmmaking, but Boyd doesn’t mind. ‘Throughout the film we wanted to make something that would be useful, because we were feeling very not useful,’ she notes. ‘I guess we were driven by this desire to make something that would reflect the problem and communicate what was happening.’