Family Goldmine


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Family Goldmine
"A bold edit based on what must have been a frustrating shoot, this film becomes a story not about gold but about people pursuing their dreams under the shadow of grand empires and hybrid religions."

Have you ever dreamed of getting away from it all and starting over? Claude has, and he's done it - more than once. Now, as he's getting into late middle age, he's determined to have one last adventure. With wife Moira and sons Craig and Pierre in tow, he sets off for Mali to make his fortune by mining gold.

There are complications, of course. Claude doesn't have a whole lot of money, so he's relying on other people's. He doesn't have any equipment, so he's forced to hire it at high prices. And neither he nor any member of his family has any experience whatsoever in mining.

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It sounds like the stuff of farce, but this is a documentary. And whilst Claude may be ill-equipped in some ways, he's highly skilled in others. His talent to keep extracting money when he has nothing to show in return is something most business people can only dream of. He also shows, at least in the early stages, a good ability to intuit the concerns of local people and to negotiate with them. Although the concept of land ownership (at least by people who have no ancestral claim) is an odd one, the locals are pleased that he wants to pay them for the gold they are already extracting from the land, rather than moving them off it. The good news is that they, at least, have some idea what they're doing. The bad news is that they have no familiarity with Western standards of health and safety; and, furthermore, the amount of gold they can produce is simply not sufficient to sustain Claude's expensive venture.

Staying with the family through several years of ups and downs - including the invasion of Mali and temporary occupation of Timbuktu by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) extremists - the documentary, like its subjects, seems to be increasingly desperate in waiting for something to happen to justify its investment. Ultimately, it's director Robbie Fraser who cracks first, but that doesn't stop him returning to see if progress has been made.

There's always something intriguing about documentaries in which things don't go to plan; it's healthy for us to be reminded of the difference between real life and Hollywood, and Family Goldmine really creates the impression that we're getting a sneak peek behind the scenes. It's also an interesting portrait of Mali's recent troubles as glimpsed - admittedly for the sidelines - by people who were there. This is not the site of the horrors but it's a place where many people are living in fear that horror might strike, and in fear for those who don't really seem to have taken it in (unless it's simply that they have learned to live with fear, a necessary skill for working in dangerous mines). At times Claude seems sidelined in his own story. His whole pln depends on finding the gold but the war puts its value into perspective.

A bold edit based on what must have been a frustrating shoot, this film becomes a story not about gold but about people pursuing their dreams under the shadow of grand empires and hybrid religions. The local people try to persuade Claude to sacrifice a white cockerel. He thinks they are seeking an apology for his unwitting intrusion onto sacred land. It seems their real concern is that, with his investment in mining, he has placed himself in a position where only a higher power can help him.

Reviewed on: 16 Feb 2015
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A family sets out to make its fortune through gold mining in Mali, despite having absolutely no experience.

Director: Robbie Fraser

Starring: Claude Nicolay, Moira Nicolay, Craig Nicolay, Pierre Nicolay

Year: 2014

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: UK


Glasgow 2015

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