A close up of a person's folded hands wearing numerous gold rings and bracelets

Living Room Session: The Making of Talking Hands (Manos Que Hablan)

asgm choco colombia gold gold mining living room sessions moda elan talking hands Apr 04, 2023

The March Living Room Session was focused on the making of the upcoming documentary film, Manos Que Hablan: de la Minería y la Joyería Ancestral en el Chocó, Colombia (“Talking Hands: About Mining and Ancestral Jewelry in Chocó, Colombia”). Filmmaker Camilo Gómez Durán together with jeweler, author, and aconomist Juana Méndez; and founder of Moda Elan, Ana María Sierra; took us backstage and shared what went into the creation of the movie. The documentary was already mentioned in our previous Living Room Sessions devoted to gold mining in the Chocó region of Colombia and to ASM gold.


Camilo Gómez Durán shares his experience of making the documentary.

Camilo Gómez Durán is a filmmaker, an anthropologist, an activist, and the maker of the film, Manos Que Hablan. The idea of making this movie came to him when he was finishing his master's degree in documentary media at the Toronto Metropolitan University. He spoke to his friend Juana Méndez and decided to join her on the project about the Chocó region, its jewelers, and the culture of gold mining.

Camilo started off by interviewing the people Juana had worked with in her research for the book “Somos Los Hijos De Oro” (“We Are The Children of Gold”). He made 5 trips to the region and spent 2 months there in total. He recorded 60 hours (8.5 terabytes of footage in 4k) which turned into 70 minutes in the documentary. So, the recorded proportion of the footage was 60 to 1. In total, 75 people were interviewed, and 55 appeared in the documentary. The movie is divided into 11 chapters.

The biggest challenge for Camilo was editing these 60 hours of footage. He had to go back to Canada to make some money as a semi-trailer driver and applied for the post production grant at the Canada Arts Council. Luckily, he got the grant and was able to contract some people, but it still took him another couple of years to put it all together.

Juana Méndez and Ana Maria Sierra encouraged Camilo to keep working and finish the documentary. Fortunately, he really enjoyed the pre-production and production parts thanks to the support of his friends, as well as the Colombian airline SATENA, the NGO Alliance for Responsible Mining, and, of course, the residents of Chocó:

“People in Chocó are extremely generous and beautiful, and they're so open-minded. They just give you what they have and they do it in a very generous way. So I had no trouble in the production phase at all.”

Camilo’s approach to work and the activism thread along the documentary was in part influenced by his background in anthropology and humanities in general. Camilo mentioned that it had given him a sense of ethics and commitment in terms of keeping the world going and safe. Before becoming a filmmaker, Camilo did a lot of activist photography with the help of his friend. Progressive views of the Concordia University in Montreal where Camilo studied anthropology have also had an influence on him.

Juana Méndez’ aims to protect the cultural heritage of Chocó, Colombia, and support its feature in the documentary.

Juanais an author, jeweler and an economist, and she's been studying the traditional jewelry of the Colombian Pacific Coast, which is made and used by Afro-Colombian communities. It has its roots in the traditions and practices brought to the region by people who had been enslaved for mining purposes.

Juana Méndez has been a jeweler for over 30 years. About 10 years ago she felt the desire to find out more about other scenarios and backgrounds of jewelry, especially in Colombia. So, she started working with Artesanias de Colombia, an institution that supports handicraft makers. Then Juana visited Barbacoas on the South Pacific Coast in Colombia, a mystical town with the legacy of gold mining and slavery that goes back to the 17th century, the times of the colony and the republic. During this trip, Juana realized the value of tradition in the craft of jewelry for the first time:

"This trip filled me with a lot of questions. I discovered that in Colombia popular ancestral jewelry persisted. [It] was the result of the way of living in a territory of forest and rivers and inhabited by the descendants of the Africans enslaved [for the purposes of] gold mining... And [from this trip] arose [my] interest to know this unique cultural heritage"

She found out that whenever we talk about mining in the Colombian Pacific Coast, we must also talk about jewelry. These two phenomena can’t be separated because there is an economic and cultural chain shaped by gold and jewelry. In the Pacific Coast region, there's a very low level of banking, so jewelry makes up an important economic circuit in the local economy and becomes the materialization of families’ economic patrimony. Therefore, the destruction caused by informal and illegal mining also impacts jewelry.

Camilo's work contributes to the dissemination of these findings and the ways to protect the cultural legacy of the mining and jewelry chain. The first strategy is to reveal the difficult situation of artisanal gold mining and jewelry. The second one is to strengthen the jewelry trade in order to reinforce this cultural legacy (That’s what Ana María Sierra and Camilo have been doing).

What is really beautiful about the Pacific Coast jewelry in Colombia is that it represents the local fashion, which changes very slowly and reflects the beliefs of people in Chocó, and their religion. Unfortunately, as Camilo shows us in his documentary, traditional miners now have less and less access to gold putting the local jewelry tradition at risk. That’s why it’s so important to document the legacy, spread awareness about this cultural lineage, and reinforce artisanal mining.

The story of Ana María Sierra.

Ana Sierra is the founder and designer at Moda Elan. She says that Juana’s work has been a huge inspiration to her. She realized that there was a powerful demand in ethical jewelry that could keep the heritage of these Afro-Colombian communities alive.

It’s overwhelming to witness the devastation in Chocó. 75% of the region’s rich biodiversity is currently threatened due to illicit mechanized gold extraction. So, Ana saw that the first step to solving these problems was to show a piece of this community to the world.

The supply chain starts with the women miners’ gold which is acquired through hand panning techniques in regional rivers, is cleaned by hand, mercury and crime free, and then it goes to the benches of the jewelers. And there are jewelry designers that value these ethical intangible assets behind the gold. So Ana’s work includes putting together the local heritage with their own DNA with the international jewelers. This way, gold goes directly from the river to the bench.

Moda Elan helps open new markets and serves as a bridge that brings miners, jewelers, and markets together with a service called immersive design.To build the bridge webinars and workshops are designed to support jewelers. Here they produce sketches and Ana's team coordinates in person visits to produce the prototypes. Then, they go together to regions identified by Juana, such as Tumaco or Quibdó.

The collaborations turn out pretty amazing. Moda Elan brings a new market which respects the local tradition and techniques, and is informed by the work Camilo and Juana have done, and of course the amazing work these jewelers and miners do. Ana also did an exchange with Camilo: he needed to do a couple of more shots, and she needed someone to come with them and record the whole trip.

Ana says that Camilo’s film gives voice to the people of Chocó:
"It's very respectful of the vision of the locals and those miners and jewelers. Camilo's documentary is like a polyphony. It's a number of different perspectives and it’s very complex…Some are negative, some are highly positive. What you see in jewelry is the very positive side of it. But there's a lot behind [it all]. The people behind these jewels struggle for a living.”

The next Moda Elan trip will take place from the 16th to the 26th of June – 10 privileged jewelers can participate. It will start with two workshops, six weeks before the trip, in order to show the region and techniques. Ana’s team and jewelers will work together on sketches and prepare the whole visit. The first place to visit will be the Gold Museum. The participants will meet the women miners, jewelers, and will have a chance to access artisanal emeralds directly from miners, from Muzo, Chivor, and Coscuez.

What was the biggest surprise for Camilo when he was working on the film?

“Well, my biggest surprise was to have found very open-minded people in Chocó. These people are mainly Afro descendants, indigenous groups, and people coming from the interior of Colombia. So we have this mixture of people working and helping each other there in Chocó. And I thought it was beautiful to observe all these groups working together very well and respecting each other.

But at the same time, I wasn't able to go to most of the mining sites which are filled with guerilla groups, paramilitary groups, or narco trafficking groups. So it's very delicate. I went to a couple of places, and you feel a bit insecure in this area.

So, contrasting that aspect of the Chocóan culture which is open and generous, and at the same time seeing that all these international groups also come into the scene. So there's a mixture there that you become aware that this is a very hot area in Colombia.”

The documentary is now in the phase of being sent to national and international film festivals. It’s also being subtitled into English and French. For now, you can watch the documentary's trailer on Camilo's website.

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