Hot Docs

The Fabulous Gold Harvesting Machine Review: When Family is Golden

Hot Docs 2024

4 mins read

The Fabulous Gold Harvesting Machine
(Chile, Netherland, 77 min.)
Dir. Alfredo Pourailly de la Plaza
Programme: International Competition


Mining gold is hard work, but when you’re 60-years-old with a failing body and your method for harvesting the treasure is artisanal, the labour is brutal. So it goes for Toto, who, operating out of a small shack near the mine, extracts gold in Tierra del Fuego by hand–and it’s killing him. We can see why, as director Alfredo Pourailly de la Plaza’s camera follows Toto through his process, sometimes wading through ice-cold water to pan for gold, sometimes hacking through the land or snow to create paths so he can get better purchase to bang away at the dirt at the side of the pathways to get to the precious metal. At one point, a pile of dirt falls and almost buries him. The result of all this work is enough nuggets of gold to sustain Toto, but only barely.

Toto’s son Jorge can’t bear it. We meet him off the top of The Fabulous Gold Harvesting Machine as he’s trying to get his father’s ancient heap of a truck started, itself emblematic of the extent to which Toto can barely eke out an existence. Father and son bicker over Toro’s failing health, a constant source of conflict, though lovingly expressed, between them. Toto is recovering from a bad cold, which sends Jorge on an extended speech about how important it is to take care yourself, to dress warmly, take your medicine. Toto just waves him away, saying that medicine is useless, and colds have to just bloom and then fade away. It’s a conversation typifying their intergenerational differences.

When it becomes obvious that Toto will not stop working, Jorge devises a plan to build a modern trommel, a machine that can separate gold from the earth, in the hopes that it will at least ease Toto’s load. He says he can finish the project within the year, but the seasons pass, one year, then two, and as Toto continues toiling away, the film begins to gain a sense of real urgency. That suspense intensifies during a spectacular sequence in which Toto is hacking at the earth and gets felled by a stroke. Fortunately, Jorge is working with him and gets him to the hospital. But Toto goes back to work, insisting that “Just because you’re sick doesn’t mean you can’t work.” And the seasons go by, and the trommel is not yet finished.

Alfredo Pourailly de la Plaza expertly shoots this tender tale with attention to the hostile landscape and the small details of how to survive on a remote ranch. Longshots of sheep herders moving their flocks or images of flamingos bathing in the sea contrast with the sequences inside Toto’s shack, where he studiously counts out the seven teaspoons of sugar he puts in his coffee.

The scenes of Toto doing arduous work no matter the season create a portrait of an appealing though stubborn elder who takes pride in what he does, and its artisanal process. Above all, the relationship between him and his son is the touching element that gives this documentary its heart.

The Fabulous Gold Harvesting Machine premiered at Hot Docs 2024.


Learn more about the film in our interview with director Alfredo Pourailly de la Plaza:

Susan G. Cole is a playwright, broadcaster, feminist commentator and the Books and Entertainment editor at NOW Magazine, where she writes about film. She is the author of two books on pornography and violence against women: Power Surge and Pornography and the Sex Crisis (both Second Story books), and the play A Fertile Imagination. She is the the editor of Outspoken (Playwrights Canada Press), a collection of lesbian monologues from Canadian plays. Hear her every Thursday morning at 9 AM on Talk Radio 640’s Media and the Message panel or look for her monthly on CHTV’s Square Off debate.

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