Award-winning filmmakers Jessica Hope Woodworth and Peter Brosens come together again to make the visually stunning Altiplano. Shot primarily in the mountains of Peru, Altiplano tells the story of two women: Grace, an ex-war photographer from Belgium, and Saturnina, a woman about to be married in the village of Turubamba, high in the Andes. The main narrative strain in the film is the story of Saturnina’s village as it interacts with the Belgian miners, who are mining for gold in the Andes, and the Belgian doctors who run a cataract clinic. Tensions around the gringos increases as the people of Turumbamba begin to suffer from mercury poisoning, which Saturnina connects to the miners.
The viewer is introduced to Grace in Iraq, where she is forced to photograph her guide and friend Omar as he is assassinated. Despite being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph, Grace has decided to withdraw from the competition with the explanation that the photograph should not exist. The film slowly brings the two women’s lives together, as Grace’s husband Max starts to work at the cataract clinic near Saturnina’s village. Eventually, Grace herself makes a pilgrimage to Turumbamba.
The filmmakers use the landscape of Peru to their advantage in many sweeping shots of the Andes mountains and the Peruvian desert. In part, Altiplano is a criticism of the colonial imperative of unregulated capitalism through its negative portrayal of the miners who threaten Saturnina's town with their improper disposal of mercury. However, the more interesting and perhaps even more nuanced theme of the film is the role and power of the image.
From the Virgin Mary statue that smashes at the beginning of the film and the religious spiritualism of such an image destruction, to Grace’s husband Max communicating with her through video diaries, to Saturnina’s own haunting video diary, to the images of the mercury-poisoned dead that the people of Turubamba thrust in the faces of the miners in protest, and to Grace’s photo of Omar, the film questions how images function. While Saturnina explains, "Without an image, there is no story," Grace’s experience of photographing Omar’s death also suggests that perhaps without the image, there would have been no story—without her presence, perhaps there would have been no assassination. The images of the dead haunt the living in this film and remind us that such images are culturally and politically charged with bearing both the mourning of survivors as well as the task of speaking out politically.
Perhaps the one criticism I would lay down on the filmmakers is that, despite the anti-colonial politics the film espouses, they choose to emphasize Saturnina’s proximity to the sacrificing Virgin Mary. Such emphasis sits in a long tradition of placing the "native woman" in the realm of iconography and myth—the spiritual addition to a story that in the end sees the White, Belgian Grace find peace and live in a world beyond the realm of imagery that Saturnina is relegated to.