The Devil’s Miner
by Doc Pedrolie
How does one lead a dignified life?
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In The Devil’s Miner - a documentary by Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani , a teacher asks this of her class. The camera finds its subject, Basilio Vargas, his dark eyes deep in thought. When the Teacher calls on him, his answer illuminates the heart inside this simple, but deeply affecting documentary.
Basilio Vargas is not your average 14 year old. He’s one of the 800 children miners who toil in the Cerro Rico mines high above Potosi in Bolivia. Basilio’s father is dead, making him the “Papa” of his family. He works the mines for them, but also so he can attend school and one day get out.
Cerro Rico is called “the mountains that eat men alive.” In the 16th century, when Spain invaded, the largest silver find in the Americas was discovered there. Potosi became one of the world’s richest cities. This wealth, though, came with a heavy price. The Spaniards enslaved the local Indios to work the mines. Eight million workers perished during production.
Today, families like Basilio’s live on the mountain in poverty. They scavenge the old mines for leftover minerals with poor equipment. Working at an altitude of nearly 15,000 feet, death is a constant threat. Breathing is difficult and fatal accidents are frequent. In this earthly hell, Basilio and his brother, Bernardino - 12, both labor to earn two or three dollars a day.
It’s this story of inhumane child labor that The Devil’s Miner initially documents. It achieves this by following Basilio through his daily routine at the start. It’s startling to watch him in the mines, instructing his brother on safety while they work. There’s no sense of youth to his demeanor, or in his actions. But it’s here, in the mines, that the film also makes a captivating turn.
Basilio takes his brother to a statue of Tio in the mine where they work. Tio is the devil, as conceived by the enslaved Indios. Tio permeates Cerro Rico. He requires offerings for protection from dangers in the mines. Basilio educates his brother on how Tio came to be. It’s a fantastic moment in the documentary, the first glimpse of Basilio’s eloquence.
Basilio, like the other Miners, is a devout Catholic. They fear that their Catholic beliefs will cost them their lives in the devil’s mines. It’s in this duality of superstition vs. faith, of life above and below ground that The Devil’s Miner opens up. Something more than a documentary about the terrible conditions children endure working at Cerro Rico takes shape.
Kief and Ladkani opt for no detached narrator. The film is told strictly through Basilio’s voice. It’s driven by his reflections on his life. It’s through this that a deeper story emerges. Basilio’s so astute in discussing the difficult world he lives in and the role he inhabits within it, that he quickly elevates the film to a much more intimate space.
When Basilio answers his Teacher’s question, his answer is “To be myself and believe in God”. His answer reveals the contradictions at the heart of The Devil’s Miner and his life. He’s a boy forced to do a man’s dangerous job. He’s a devout Catholic who prays to the devil for protection. He’s a young student with hope for a better future, but still trapped by the hardships of the past. It’s not easy to be himself and have faith, but to accomplish both is to survive the hell of Cerro Rico. In doing so, Basilio, and The Devil’s Miner, find an unfettered dignity
Basilio understands the reality of his life, but still holds out hope for a better life. It’s a higher contradiction to his story, and the film. Few children miners break free of the mines. Basilio knows this, but doesn’t succumb to it. He balances school and work. He understands his burden and that it could be temporary, not permanent. His dreams are realistic. He takes charge of his life and works for them. This quiet hope is the real call to action in The Devil’s Miner.
The last part of the film takes the story back from Basilio’s personal struggle. It returns its focus to the brutal conditions of the mine. It’s in this choice that The Devil’s Miner makes a brief misstep, going for the expected images and statistics to frame the story just as it ends. This choice dissipates the power of Basilio’s unique voice. It’s unfortunate, but not cause enough to miss out on seeing such an ultimately strong documentary about such a captivating young man’s fight for survival.
The Devil’s Miner, co-directed by Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani, opens March 17th in Chicago, New York. It opens in other, select cities in April.
Doc Pedrolie is a film critic and veteran filmmaker living in Chicago.
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