In Conversation with Robert Lang on Collaboration, Risks & a Highly Secretive Gold Industry.

by Hogan Short

Ahead of “The Shadow of Gold” screening + Vancity Impact talk with our expert panel, one of our VIFF writers sat down with Filmmaker Robert Lang, to talk about collaboration on the project, travelling to various film locations and risks taken to capture the film, and the film’s reception.

The Shadow of Gold (2019)

Was gold on your mind before this project? What part did gold play in your life?

Gold wasn’t really a part of my life. I was responsible for another major global look at diamonds. We made a documentary that got a lot of attention ten years ago. We liked the format where you look at the commodity through the eyes of people who worked in the industry. People appreciated that perspective. Well looked at blood diamonds, the trade in the north of Canada, and ice diamonds…you don’t usually get films that connect the dots from corners of the globe. Then gold came up in that context; how people treasure diamonds and rings, symbol of love and purity. So before that we moved onto opium, not gold at all yet. We investigated the opium trade and the failure of the war on drugs, illicit and legal. After that, it was our specialization, those looks at the global picture of these important misunderstood commodities. I read the book ‘Gold’, found it fascinating, and was hooked. It takes a long time to make these ambitious films.

And there were three directors on this project. What was that collaboration like? 

There were actually more than three. It was a producer driven project. It’s too complicated, because it was an international co-production, a treaty co-production. This requires you have somewhat equal creative input from both entities. We had a larger share of financing come from Canada but France was the other party – they needed to bring in people. Sally Blake and I stepped in to shoot in different parts of Europe and North America. We brought in other directors to film in China. We hired a Ugandan filmmaker for the scenes in the Republic of Congo. We had a Montreal director do the Peruvian scenes, while Sally and I ended up finishing it in the edit. Sally did some shooting in London. We all contributed.

What was that experience like for everyone travelling to these countries? Was it hard to get access to all of these locations?

Yes, it was. To be honest, the mine in China that we filmed in was completely undercover. We had Fanfan Zhuang in and had to show him how to use a GoPro. It was all shot by him in the mines, nobody knew they were filming; they wouldn’t be allowed. A couple months after we filmed, that mine then closed down on environmental grounds. In the DRC, Ian Kimaje was threatened and had to leave for asking questions in the conflict area. In Peru, German Gutierrez faced threats because he was asking questions like where does this gold go, who are the buyers…after 6 hours they told him “if you don’t get out you’ll be sorry.” It’s a very dangerous and illegal trade that goes on. It’s replaced the cocaine trade. There’s lots of mafia type so yes, you are in danger. The other mines, even the Mount Polley mine we filmed, not illegally, but we were stopped and asked a lot of questions. The gold industry is very secretive. They’d rather not have the attention.

What was it like getting to know these individual mine workers?

It’s very heart wrenching. You see what we could easily judge as being a dirty industry and it’s terrible. They are just like everyone in the world trying to eke out a living, pay for food and housing and take care of their families. Getting to know them changes your mind in many ways on how one perceives the industry. It makes you want to be more active. I had a conversation with a friend from Sweden and he saw the film on Swedish TV. He was so moved by it he wants to pay for Fanfan Zhuang’s medication. He thought how terrible that this man will die because he can’t pay for the medication he needs. He revealed to me that he had been to China for a short period where he had put some of his savings in gold and felt badly. He wanted to pay back.

You visited the site of the Mount Polley disaster here in BC. What was that experience like?

We filmed a lot around there; it was remarkable. And even speaking with the local residents and people who didn’t make it into the film…it’s a conflicted response. Not everybody has those negative reviews, they were good jobs. But the damage it created, that impact will be there for many years. It could have affected the salmon spawning that feeds the Fraser salmon population. The trees are down and a caked lake bottom, all of these pollutants. It’s astonishing how bad that was, and you are confronted with it. It looks nice now but there is a cloud over this lake. People still drink bottled water. It’s still very recent.

Do you think the industry learned from it? Are you hopeful for the gold trade moving forward?

It doesn’t matter what I think. I’m a filmmaker. I try to be respectful of the facts and I tell the story that will help people understand the subject better. I hope people will see the industry and put pieces together and they will make different choices, whether it’s getting a wedding band or ensure our environment is kept as clean as possible. To put pressure on the industry, to keep them accountable to those who exploit the resources. Change comes in strange ways. Government regulation, public insisting, there are choices we suggest that people can buy clean gold or responsibly sourced gold. There are choices we can make. They’re bottom line industries and they’re only as good as their market allows them to be. If there’s pressure and they have to, if people investigate about Mount Polley, and there was no accountability in that case, legal or financial, different decisions could have been made because of bottom line reasons.

And now that the film is out, how does the positive reaction feel? Especially at these conversations after screenings, like the one happening at Vancity on March 11.

I’m thrilled, I love it. I generally make TV documentaries for broadcasters. When you put a film on TV you get the odd review or tweet. Now this is going into theatres and this discussion, it’s so great. It’s an immediate response to something and to see how films change the debate with people who are interested. There are increasing numbers of people watching documentaries for that very reason. To share ideas, debate ideas, I’ve been delighted. There’s going be a great panel in Vancouver with people who are in the film, Jacinda Mack from the First Nations Women advocating for responsible mining. Kevin Telmer, Executive Director of the Artisanal Gold Council from Victoria. Shaun Dykes, he’s the Geologist, the VP of Lucky Minerals. He’s exploring for gold mines and he’s from Vancouver. There will be someone on the ground affected, a miner who wants to find it, a representative from the Artisanal Gold Council who’s trying to make a difference bring artisan mining practices and me who will just listen.

“The Shadow of Gold” screening + Vancity Impact Talk will take place on Monday March 11th at 6:30pm.

Our screening will be followed by a discussion with filmmaker Robert Lang and a panel of experts. Guests include: Jacinda Mack, First Nations Women Advocating for Responsible Mining; Kevin Telmer, Ph D. Executive Director of Artisanal Gold Council; and Shaun Dykes, VP Lucky Minerals, prospector. Moderated by Tracey Friesen (Story Money Impact).

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