After walking seven days from the Bolivian mining town of Huanuni, Elder Mamani arrives in La Paz with a group of fellow unemployed miners demanding jobs. While wandering through the city, Elder struggles to breathe. He wheezes, coughs, and nearly faints—his lungs, we learn, are degraded from dust in the tin mine. Eventually, Elder comes upon Mamá Pancha, his self-proclaimed godmother and a fixture of the Rodriguez market in El Alto. She helps him find work hauling vegetables; at night, he sleeps in the street, his body broken. El Gran Movimiento, Kiro Russo’s second feature film, follows the deterioration of Elder’s health and the efforts of Mamá Pancha and her friend Max, a local prophetic figure and jester, to heal him.
Speaking about the film, Russo said that he is “interested in the traces of time, in this case the traces of time that are captured in the walls of a city…. the working class that has carried out many of the most important revolutions in [Bolivia is] a class that today is more and more immersed in consumerism and the virtual world.” Russo is painfully aware of the isolating influence of technology and capitalism, and sometimes hopeless about the potential of the labor movement to respond. Even so, the characters in El Gran Movimiento seek moments of solidarity amid the precarity of life in La Paz. Despite a rapidly shifting cultural landscape, unstable working conditions, illness, and the threat of death, Elder and his companions come closer together, tending one another’s wounds and finding communal revelation in bleak circumstances. From defeatism to direct action, from the darkness of nightclubs and mines to the bustling mornings in the Rodriguez market, Russo’s film expresses how quickly worlds collapse, and how quickly new ones are born.
In El Gran Movimiento’s first sequence, Russo investigates La Paz’s urban landscape, revealing previously hidden phenomena in long zooms and pans. First we see the city’s residential buildings in a slow, meticulous zoom that begins with an extreme wide shot and ends on a building under construction. Then we move in among the residential buildings, revealing their textures on Super 16mm film—beautiful blues and gray stone, the play of light and shadow, the distortion of glass windows. Next Russo explores Mi Teleférico, the aerial cable car completed in 2019 connecting La Paz with El Alto, beginning in a wide shot and working toward a closeup of the cars rattling through pulleys. The alarming clunk of the cable cars takes on a steady rhythm that grows into a symphony, the first of many excellent pieces composed by Miguel Llanque.
The closer Russo looks, the more he finds that La Paz is resting on an unstable foundation. In the chorus of cars on a bridge, in a tangle of wires wrapped around a telephone pole, and underneath the layers of torn posters, something is hiding. A humming current inches toward a bottleneck, ready to burst. Most put their heads down and cover their ears; Russo presses in to listen.
Once he has introduced the city, Russo homes in on the film’s driving action: a group of unemployed miners stand in a plaza facing a line of heavily armed police, their chants punctured by tear gas canister explosions. Speaking with a fellow protester, Elder (played by Julio César Ticona, a nonactor who himself was an out-of-work miner at the time) describes the challenges of their shared journey—cold nights, foot pain, heavy loads. Elder is enigmatic. He wears sunglasses that cover half his face and speaks in a disaffected monotone. Elder was also the protagonist of Russo’s previous film, Viejo Calavera, which followed his life in the mines after his father’s sudden death. As such, unlike his comrades, he is given a public platform—a first among equals.
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Elder and his friends spend their initial days in La Paz looking for momentary balm from their suffering. While riding on Mi Teleférico, Elder falls into a hazy sleep. His two companions comment on the city passing below them as if they are watching a film. They guffaw at the big houses and joke that one day they’ll own homes just like these, complete with pools and maids. Beneath their jokes is a palpable longing for a restful future or past unmarred by struggle. A lone blue dress floats on a laundry line in the breeze below, lighter than air.
That night, the men plan their next step, pass a bottle of liquor among themselves, and join a crowd watching a WWE wrestling match in lurid color. They stumble onto a dance floor with flashing lights. Elder is entirely transported by the music, but his escape from reality is brief; in the next shot, he is perched precariously on a street curb, asleep. One moment the men are free from worry, the next they are vulnerable as children—sometimes they are both.
Russo’s cinematic techniques immerse us in his characters’ travails. His visual style reflects the meter of their lives: slow-moving, but with the potential for disruption at any moment. One evening, while Elder and his friends sleep in the street in the market, a shadowy female figure begins to sway in the dark. Another vendor joins her, followed by Elder’s fellow laborers, and finally by Elder himself. They rise and dance to electronic music in a choreographed sequence, the silhouettes of young and old, healthy and sick, rising for a time from the slog of realism. In El Gran Movimiento, astonishing moments like these arrive out of thin air and then vanish.
Russo’s film contains many sequences that break abruptly from its central action, challenging the viewer’s comfortable position. Western audiences have grown familiar with films about the struggles of working people, like the Oscar-winning works Nomadland and Roma. These narratives, while ostensibly giving working people a voice, often recycle pernicious stereotypes about them instead: They may be idealized as noble or beautiful, and are seldom fully realized as characters with depth. The complex moments that fall in between hardship and triumph—the moments that characterize most of our lives—are rarely seen. By introducing a dance sequence whose choreography might be at home in a Broadway musical, Russo points to this failure of representation and imagination. He breaks up the familiar spectacle of toil and, in a revelatory twist, forces the audience to associate characters like Elder and his friends with theatrical frivolity and heroism instead.
While the film’s main action takes place in La Paz’s urban center, another focal point emerges in the form of Mamá Pancha’s friend Max, who passes his time on its margins, allowing him to see things only an outsider can. We first encounter Max lying on his back in a wooded area, looking up at a canopy of trees. His eyes roll back in his head as he mouths incantations. He watches the operations of a surface mine in the distance: An excavator plunges its bucket into the earth, and a truck dumps its load elsewhere into a pit. Meanwhile, Max digs into the soil with his hands, collecting roots and flowers.
Russo’s montage forces an urgent collision between competing forms of knowledge in La Paz. At the edge of the city, Max investigates industrial works hidden from public view and in the next moment harvests plants for medicinal use. In time, he brings the plants he has gathered to Mamá Pancha and wraps them around her arm with a bandage, echoing an earlier shot of a doctor drawing Elder’s blood at a clinic. The competing forces of healing practices and modern medicine, life on the margins and life in the mine, the patterns of the local market and the global market, the past and the future, light and dark, all collide in El Gran Movimiento’s climactic scene. Toward the end of the film, once Elder’s condition has become life-threatening, Max comes to his bedside in a final attempt to cure his illness. Beneath a heavy rain falling on Mamá Pancha’s roof, Max rubs Elder’s chest with a potent liquid and brushes him with a bundle of leaves, then puts his face to Elder’s and begins chanting incantations. Max is red and blustering; Elder is pale as death. At first, we only see the two men’s faces, but slowly a point of light emerges, no bigger than a pin. It begins to grow and, between Max and Elder, a dizzying march begins.
The point of light reveals itself to be a line of headlamps bobbing up and down as miners run through a tunnel, an image culled, perhaps, from Elder’s memories. Once they have run by, a parade of unmanned machine labor begins: Hoses spurt, slickly oiled wheels spin, and sooty tinstones shuttle along on a conveyor belt. Russo then abruptly cuts aboveground to the market in La Paz. We begin to see a commercial procession accompanied by a pompous marching tune. Vendors wheel tomatoes, paw potatoes, slice squash, weigh meat, and exchange bills. Hawkers, police officers, passersby, unhoused dozers, elderly women, businessmen, and mothers play their part in the pageantry of the street. The images increase in speed until they’re zooming by and proliferating in a crescendo. Finally it breaks, and we return to Elder’s bedside.
In this powerful series of scenes, Russo imagines the city as an ecosystem at the crossroads of the mine and the marketplace. When toxins are found at the bottom of a food chain, they increase in concentration as they progress upward; in the city, a similar kind of biomagnification occurs. La Paz, Russo’s montage attests, is built on the back of the tin mine and multiplies its evils.
In the Huanuni mine, the largest cassiterite deposit in the world, Russo encounters a foundational, deeply entrenched industry that is entirely obscured from view. This gurgling enterprise is hidden twice over: First, the work is done underground, and second—like so much labor under late capitalism—it is kept at a remarkable distance from those who own and profit from its production. Like invisible toxins, those who capitalize on the work of the machines are nearly impossible to see. And like thunder or rain, the mining equipment functions by its own rhythms. It looks and feels like a force of nature, which is how its owners like it—a symphony with a hidden conductor.
Russo’s masterful film exposes the mine as a veiled foundation of life in this South American metropolis, and in so doing, indicts industry as the core of a rotting global economic system. His techniques—montage, chiaroscuro, and expansive sound design—also reveal the insights that Max is able to find just outside the city. Eternal sources of wisdom and the mechanisms that uphold capital have one thing in common: They are both out of sight and can be seen only by those with keen vision. But those who see one, see both.