Iowa City documentarians expose the somber side of the gold mining industry in Guatemala

Caption -- photo by Rachel Jessen
Pictured are filmmakers Andrew Sherburne (left) and Tommy Haines. Gold Fever will screen at FilmScene Scene 1 Cinema on October 10 at 7 by Rachel Jessen

Gold Fever is about to hit Iowa City. Created by documentary filmmakers JT Haines, Tommy Haines and Andrew Sherburne, the movie examines the global economic and political systems that drive and sustain our desire for precious metals and other mined resources.

Gold Fever, which has been shown at multiple national and international film festivals, will screen a week before the global premeire on Oct. 17 at the new FilmScene theater. At the screening, attendees can contemplate their own role in the business of extracting resources while they learn about the stories of three Guatemalan women.

Mothers and wives, they are natives of San Miguel, a small Mayan community in the country’s highlands whose land and village has been overtaken by international mining company Goldcorp.

Protagonist Diodora Hernandez (pictured) is a survivor of what she describes as an assassination attempt after refusing to sell her land to a Goldcorp subsidiary.

While Goldcorp’s operations employ more than 1,600 locals, they also gorge on 9 million liters of water per day, a resource the women say has become contaminated—a probable accusation given that the poisonous chemicals used to extract gold from the earth, including cyanide, copper and mercury, have also been found in the region’s acid rain.

And the alleged damage isn’t limited to San Miguel waterways. Protagonist Diodora Hernandez is a survivor of what she describes as an assassination attempt after refusing to sell her land to a Goldcorp subsidiary. The known perpetrators were miners from her area, accentuating the deep fractures between the corporation’s employees and those who oppose the mere presence of the mine.

In some cases, the rifts are real, manifested as cracks in the foundations and walls of area homes. According to residents they are the result of explosions intended to remove the mountainous terrain layer by layer. The technique is common to ore extractors, who employ it when metals are dispersed in rock rather than concentrated in a vein.

Though widely accepted in the mining industry, this extraction technique is not as warmly welcomed by concerned human rights organizations. Responding to pushback from several parties, Goldcorp conducted its own human rights assessment in 2008. Predictably, it resulted in little to no change to the dilemmas facing native residents and instead reiterated a commitment to transparency and shareholders.

So, who would invest in such a morally dubious venture? It could be you. Goldcorp, based in Canada, sells shares on the global market and benefited from American military actions that overthrew Guatemala’s leader in the mid-20th century. Anyone holding a pension plan or paying taxes is more than likely tied in some way to resource extraction.

As Grahame Russell, co-director of human rights organization Rights Action and the film’s guiding voice notes, “Goldcorp’s harmful operation in Guatemala is not unique. There are hundreds, if not thousands of resources extraction companies causing health and environmental harms around the world.”

As a result, Russell says there needs to be an enhanced critical understanding of such issues in the global north. “The violations documented in the film are not Guatemalan problems, they are our problems,” he stresses.

Tommy Haines agrees, but he notes that the issue is not always black and white. Shooting on location in Guatemala and absorbing the history of the country, he realized that from both a human and cinematographic point of view, the story of San Miguel and the mine was not clear-cut.

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“The company isn’t just this evil beast. There is a complex backstory involving Guatemala and United States foreign policy,” he explains.

Though Tommy did not explicate the matter further, the co-director did indicate that the many players and perspectives present in issues surrounding gold mining made decisions on the cutting room floor difficult. He spent many hours contemplating the implications of each scene and what it might communicate to viewers. “As a filmmaker, how much do you affect the story and how much do you let it tell itself?” he asked.

While there may not be an easy answer, if you consult with fellow director Sherburne, he’ll tell you that the narrative not only speaks for itself, but also for a broader audience. “[The story of San Miguel] plays out in many different ways in many different communities for many different products. The way we use our resources and the way we interact with our environment is relevant everywhere,” he says.

Gold Fever shows at FilmScene on Oct. 10. For more information on the film visit

Amy Mattson is a freelance writer and editor with a penchant for travel. You can reach her at