The Gold Machine: a reckoning with ghosts

This reflexive blend of fiction and non-fiction, part of a multimedia release, thoughtfully explores the legacy of British colonialism in Peru.

Michael Byrne as Andrew Norton, a recurring fictional alter-ego of Iain Sinclair, in The Gold Machine (2022)

How far can we allow ourselves to be haunted by the malicious actions of our forebears? And how to exorcise the lingering burden they impose? These are the questions that are wrestled with in a variety of forms throughout Grant Gee’s essayistic new film, The Gold Machine. A literal and figurative odyssey to Peru, the film shifts perspectives and modes, bringing together the experiences and sensibilities of collaborators like the writer Iain Sinclair, his daughter Farne, and producer Gregorio Santos Pérez.

For Gee, the film is the third instalment in a loose trilogy about “the places books take us”, following Patience: After Sebald (2012) and Innocence of Memories (2015). In The Gold Machine, the book in question was written by the great-grandfather of Andrew Norton, a recurring fictional alter-ego of Iain Sinclair. In fact, In Tropical Lands was written by Sinclair’s ancestor, the botanist Arthur Sinclair; in the film, it is the fictional Arthur Norton who detailed his trek into the Peruvian jungle in search of virgin land ripe for exploitation. The film itself is ostensibly divided into two strands: one sitting with Andrew Norton in a room overlooking the sea as he ruminates on his family history, and the other tracks his daughter as she follows in her ancestor’s footsteps.

In reality, both Iain and Farne made the journey to Peru, and Gee’s film exists in concert with a book of the same name by Sinclair, and a podcast providing reflections on the journey, produced by Farne. In the film, Norton (played silently by Michael Byrne) remains confined to his rooms, where he was incarcerated in Sinclair’s 2004 novel Dining on Stones. Instead of being present in Peru, he narrates (in a voiceover performed by Stephen Dillane) from afar; Sinclair’s elegant prose peers through the layers of history built precariously upon one another, attempting to connect with deeper substrata of understanding. Norton wrestles with the echoes of his great-grandfather, while Farne engages with his impact on the indigenous Asháninka people of Chanchamayo: “The wheels turn, bones are crushed.”

Gee does an excellent job of melding the film’s various elements and modalities in a way that draws out the best of Sinclair’s poetic narration without ever mystifying or exoticising the film’s ethnographic footage. The involvement of Pérez, Asháninka himself, brings both that cultural viewpoint and an academic rigour (he has worked extensively with anthropologist Elena Mihas, who also appears) that gives The Gold Machine a genuinely collaborative feel, managing to return some semblance of agency to those whose stories weren’t turned into 19th-century books. It may not atone for ancestral crimes, but it is a valiant start.

► The Gold Machine is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

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