Gold fever

By Georgia Popplewell

Orpailleur, directed by Marc Barrat (90 minutes)

Still from Orpailleur

Tony Mpoudja and Sara Martins in Orpailleur. Image courtesy the trinidad+tobago film festival

The vast geological region known as the Guiana Shield — endowed with both astounding mineral wealth and a biodiversity unrivalled elsewhere on the planet — stretches across the north-eastern portion of South America, spanning French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, Venezuela, and parts of Colombia and Brazil. Tensions in the region come with the territory, exacerbated by disputes over national borders and ownership rights of indigenous and Maroon populations. French Guiana–born Marc Barrat locates the action of his — and his home territory’s — first feature film in one corner of the Shield, a hotspot where corrupt gold mine bosses and petty prospectors — orpailleurs — lock horns with environmentalists, indigenous people, and Brazilian illegals.

Orpailleur opens with what appears to be a murder in the forest. The victim, we learn, is Myrtho Cerda (Jimmy Jean-Louis), older brother of Rodrigue (Tony Mpoudja), a young “négropolitain” who returns to French Guiana to investigate, with his wide-eyed buddy Bruno “Gonz” Gonzales (Julien Courbey) in tow. Whisked away to France by his mother eighteen years prior, Rod is unfamiliar with the culture and customs of his birthplace. Nor does it seem he’s kept in touch with his family: his grandmother, a purse-lipped Caribbean matriarch, barely recognises him at first, and isn’t enthralled at his return, fearing that he, like his father and brother before him, will fall victim to “gold fever.” Rod’s more supportive aunt passes on a box of his brother’s possessions, notably a snapshot of Myrtho carrying Rod on his shoulders.

Talismanic photo in hand, Rod and Gonz set out for the mining town of Régina. There Rod encounters an undue amount of hostility each time the Cerda name is mentioned, and meets Yann (Sara Martins), an eco-tour operator and environmentalist who’s none too popular with gold mining fraternity. As Rod is schooled by Yann about the corrosive effects of the gold trade, Gonz, wandering awestruck about the town, is fed a rosier story by Jair, a Brazilian garimpeiro (the Brazilian Portuguese equivalent of orpailleur) he meets in a bar. The newly acquired viewpoints of the two friends clash, resulting a quarrel that launches them on to separate paths: Rod to find out what happened to his brother, and Gonz to make easy money in the gold trade.

Rod’s quest for the truth about Myrtho begins with a visit to a forest-dwelling Maroon shaman. He subjects Rod to a series of rituals which serve as an initiation, a means of reconnecting Rod with his birthplace and his inner self. The sequence also establishes one of the film’s central tropes: the natural world as earthly paradise. Yann and Rod’s trek through the forest to meet the shaman — which is interrupted at one point by a gratuitous aerial shot of a golden-flowered tree straight out of Avatar — is intercut with claustrophobia-inducing scenes of Gonz’s gruelling first river dive at the mining camp. Returning to Régina and learning that Gonz has left for the sinister Lavergne’s mining camp, Rod and Yann set off to find him.

The extractive industries have acquitted themselves rather badly in both film and literature (think How Green Was My Valley or Blood Diamond). Though likely based on actual accounts of the kind of activity that’s been on the increase in French Guiana since the mid 1990s, Orpailleur’s portrayal of the gold mining scene resembles something out of Heart of Darkness. I’d be willing to bet that Barrat filmed on actual mining concessions, and the mine sequences offer a fascinating glimpse into extraction techniques in that part of the world, and the culture of brutality, greed, and disregard for human life that prevails in the polyglot environment of the camps.

Gonz, gullible and reckless, misbehaves and gets himself deported to a “red camp,” an illegal mining concession in a protected area. Rod and Yann follow Gonz’s trail, travelling miles upriver — first by pirogue, then jet ski — through breathtaking Guianese landscapes. On arrival at the camp, they’re captured by Lavergne’s goons, discover the truth of what happened to Myrtho, then manage a spectacular escape, thanks to the machinations of well-coördinated double agents.

Gonz is the film’s jester, a stock figure in a certain strain of action adventure film whose role is to lead the more level-headed hero into plot-advancing trouble. Gonz’s foolish arrogance and naïve apprehension of his new surroundings is a cliché, but Barrat and co-screenwriter Apsita Berthelot-Cissé give him more to do, a more serviceable backstory, and more clearly defined motivations than Rod. Apart from a few scenes where he loses his cool (the shaman identifies anger management as a primary issue), Rod is a passive, taciturn figure about whom we learn relatively little. Yann’s motivations (finding her lover Myrtho, saving the environment from the evil gold miners) are clearer, and she’s literally in the driver’s seat for most of the film, but there’s little zing to her character. It’s as though the writers were so intent on having these two attractive actors save the day that they forgot to give them some human dimension. It is through the scrappy Gonz that we learn something of Rod’s life in Paris, and more importantly, it’s through Gonz’s eyes that we experience the horror of the gold trade, its impact upon the land and on the people who work in it.

That said, Orpailleur — filmed in thirty-five days in the Guianese interior, in obviously difficult circumstances — is an ambitious piece of work. It hews closely to the conventions of its genre, but Barrat’s sure touch results in a well-paced action adventure with performances of a high standard, not to mention a spectacular star: the landscape of the Guianas, so rarely glimpsed on film or elsewhere.


This review is part of a special section on recent Caribbean film, supported by the trinidad+tobago film festival 2010

The Caribbean Review of Books, September 2010

Georgia Popplewell is a Trinidadian media producer and writer. She is managing director of the international citizen journalism project Global Voices.