Krakow Film Festival 2024

Grubbing for gold

GOLD / Dreaming of gold in a dangerous and dusty mining shanty town.

Burkina Faso filmmaker Boubacar Sangaré’s debut documentary, A Golden Life, is a beautifully shot, evocatively structured dive into the world of Sub-Saharan Africa’s chaotic and risky gold mining business.

The country is the fourth largest producer of gold in Africa, and much of the precious yellow metal comes from the Klondike-like encampments of deep narrow shafts, flimsy shelters and fume-belching pumps that are ubiquitous in this film. Sangaré’s intimate feel for his subject is not surprising – as a 13-year-old, he worked in just such a mining camp, selling water: 200 CFA (Central African Franc) for a 20-litre can of river water, 300 if it was filtered.

A Golden Life Boubacar Sangaré
A Golden Life, a film by Boubacar Sangaré

Cart Boys

A Golden Life is structured almost like a feature film, and this is a carefully scripted documentary – even if it has aspirations to be a fly-on-the-wall piece. The story pivots around a 16-year-old mine worker, ‘Bolo’ (Rasmané Tall) and his two younger friends, Missa Farma and Dramane Farma (the ‘Cart Boys’). Everyone in the ramshackle shantytown that makes up the (unnamed) gold mining community has a function. Bolo is part of a gang sinking a narrow 100-metre-deep shaft into the rocky soil in search of gold. They dig under the guidance of an older man, who is teased for his preference for «old-fashioned” music but is also a father figure, handing out cigarettes, regulating alcohol consumption, overseeing pot-smoking sessions – and settling disputes. Bolo may be the youngest member of the team, but he is already taking on the responsibilities of an adult, toiling in the soaking wet depths of the pit, knowing the dangers that it brings: a story he shares about a man who died in a deep shaft is illustrated by phone footage of officials inspecting the body once it was brought to the surface. At other times the use of a mobile phone illustrates Bolo’s nostalgia for his childhood as he stares at photos of his (slightly) younger self, looking clean and innocent before he takes to mining.

The miners work with little or no safety equipment, rules or regulations. When the spoil tip behind their shack becomes too high – threatening to topple onto a neighbouring gold ‘claim’ – a suited man, probably a senior boss of that and other claims – issues a stern rebuke, swearing and threatening the boys. But these young miners are still little more than children, sharing stories at night about the ‘djinn’ – earth spirits – that guard the gold. One boy – perhaps 18 – pronounces that there are two types of gold: animate and inanimate. You don’t want to mix with the animate type, he says.

The film explores the processes of grubbing for gold in the scrubby lands of Burkina Faso – from sinking shafts by hand to the milling, washing and extraction of tiny amounts of gold: the only piece of the precious stuff we see is less than the size of a pea, for which Bolo receives the princely sum of 112,000 CFA (worth about €170) from the local assayer.

«The white guys and us are like the sun and the moon – that far apart.»

The team

Sangaré focuses almost exclusively on Bolo and his team, although a sub-plot involving the work of the cart boys – essential low-level transporters of heavy sacks of ore on a rickety hand-pulled cart – is an entertaining diversion. What we don’t see – or only in passing – are the other people of this intricate eco-system: the guys who sell pain-killing medication to soothe the aching muscles of the young diggers; the woman selling rice that one of Bolo’s friends dismissed as not his type because he doesn’t like her «physique» before wistfully talking of the girl who sells rice. Nor do we follow the supposed spicey nocturnal adventures of these young tough, but also surprisingly soft, guys. Bolo is teased for wasting a few thousand francs gained from selling a computer or phone memory card on dancing girls, cheap booze, and whores. As fanciful as that story may be, Sangaré’s curiosity (or perhaps permission to film) does not extend to those parts of the mining camp.

Nor do we see the ‘white guys’ who bring in heavy drilling machinery to bore down into the ground for gold: Bolo and his friends are wide-eyed in awe of the machines and dreamily talk of breaking into the deep shaft just to gather up some of the supposed gold dust to be found there. But perhaps this is intentional: one character says: «The white guys and us are like the sun and the moon – that far apart.»

A Golden Life Boubacar Sangaré
A Golden Life, a film by Boubacar Sangaré

Create success

Bolo dreams of making enough money to escape the laborious and dangerous life he has chosen. In closing scenes, as he and some of his friends play football on an old French tabletop ‘Babyfoot’ machine, one of the players is Sangaré – who gives them a clue on how to find true gold and escape the grit and grime of the camp: get an education, have a vision and create your own success. Perhaps Bolo – with his wit and charm – has a chance, but for the vast majority labouring in these dark and dirty places to supply the wealthy around the world with golden baubles, their future is likely to be as grubby as the shantytown they labour in.

‘A Golden Life’ screens as part of the 2023 Docs Ireland Maysles Brothers Observational Documentary Competition.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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