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The Devil's Miner
Micki Krimmel, 27 Apr 06

basilio%20miner.jpgLast night, I attended a screening of The Devil’s Miner hosted by ITVS (The Independent Television Service) and Artists for Amnesty. I can’t recommend this film enough. The film is so polished and well-crafted that at times, I forgot I was watching a documentary. Through powerful storytelling, co-directors Keif Davidson and Richard Ladkani reveal the staggering working conditions and poverty of Bolivian silver miners. Without an ounce of condescension or heavy-handedness, The Devils Miner makes a potent social statement and has already paved the way for significant change in the region.

The Devil’s Miner tells the story of 14 year-old Basilio Vargas as he works in the Bolivian silver mines of Cerro Rico. Since losing their father, Basilio and his younger brother Bernardino must work in the mines to help support their mother and younger sister and to afford the clothing and supplies necessary to continue their education. Basilio narrates the film and through him, we learn the history of the Potosi people and experience the reality of their condition.

From the film’s press kit:

In the 16th century, when the Spanish conquistadors invaded the South American highlands, they discovered a treasure so valuable that it financed the Spanish wars for centuries. It was a cone-shaped mountain they named Cerro Rico, the Rich Pinnacle. Cerro Rico turned out to be the largest silver find in the history of the Americas. The mountain provided over two thirds of the world’s silver demand and funded the rise of one of the richest cities in its time – Potosi. But the splendors of Potosi came with the price of human misery. The Spanish enslaved the local Indios, and forced them to dig for minerals under inhumane conditions. Over the last four centuries, it is believed that over eight million workers perished in the mines.
Today, 9,000 Potosi miners – often referred to as the “Scavengers of Cerro Rico” – continue the job daily with primitive means of protection and equipment. At an average altitude of 15,000 feet, breathing is labored, fatal accidents are frequent and most miners fall victim to black lung disease by age forty. Working in a maze of over 20,000 tunnels, the miners make it their mission to find any remaining valuable minerals overlooked during the Spanish rule. Many families participate in the infinite search, with hundreds of children working inside the mountain. Sadly, Cerro Rico has been depleted of most of its silver abundance, and Potosi’s wealth has long vanished.
Seeking safety in the dangerous conditions, the minors honor the devil. They call him “Tio” or “Uncle” and fervently believe he is the sole ruler of the underworld with the power to protect and destroy. He is the true owner of the minerals. The miners have constructed hundreds of devil’s chambers enshrining statues in his image complete with bullhorns, teeth made of shattered glass with some standing as high as ten feet. They make continuous offerings of alcohol, coca leaves and cigarettes to Tio, who if treated well, may reveal a silver vein of wealth and security.
With the Spanish missionaries came the successful introduction of Catholicism. The Potosi miners today remain devout Catholics, and there are over forty churches and convents surrounding Cerro Rico. Inside the Devil Mountain however, the miners fear Christianity could cost them everything, including their lives, so they sever ties with God at the mine entrances. Frustrated yet sympathetic priests watch them “double their armor” by praying to God on one day as they worship the devil the next.

After the screening, Director Keif Davidson and his wife Kathleen participated in a short panel discussion and answered questions from the audience. Keif noted that he and Richard Ladkani didn’t set out to make a social issue film. Their initial intention was to make a film about the history of the mountain and the dichotomous religious practices. It took five years to raise the finances for the film and when the filmmakers finally got to Bolivia, they discovered the children working in the mines. Their guide introduced them to the Vargas family. Upon meeting Basilio, they realized they had a unique opportunity to tell this story through the eyes of such a charismatic and articulate child.

With Basilio as narrator, the film is a very personal story that draws the audience into the world of the Potosi people. The superb camera work and delicate sound carry us down into the mines with Basilio and the other miners. The authentic music takes us to Bolivia. We feel as though the miners have invited us into their lives.

The uncompromising portrayal of life in the mines is aided by the fact that the filmmakers themselves had to endure the harsh conditions. While filming, the likelihood of tunnel collapses, toxic gases, runaway carts and dynamite explosions created constant anxiety. Just like the miners, they resorted to chewing coca leaves to battle the relentless headaches and fatigue. At times, the temperatures climbed to 100°F (40C).

After spending two hours in the world of the miners, it’s impossible to leave the theater not wanting to do something to help. The film has had a huge impact on the region already. Kathleen Davidson is leading the advocacy outreach working with Kindernothilfe and CARE to reduce child labor and improve living conditions for the children of Potosi. The film was recently screened for an American mining company building a mine on the mountain. Aid organizations working in the region are using the film to put pressure on the government to regulate child labor – it is illegal for children to work in the mines. Kindernothilfe has been struggling for funding but they recently included the film in grant application and were awarded $2mil for their efforts in Potosi.

The filmmakers are also doing a lot of educational outreach with the film. A mining company recently paid for 600 students from NYC schools to attend a screening. The hope is that inner city kids see themselves in the characters and feel empowered to change their own lives. A school in Boston recently organized a benefit screening and raised $2500 from one event. Students are learning about poverty and trying their hands at advocacy. The film has been screened in educational settings in the US, Spain and Mexico. The filmmakers hope to continue bringing this story to kids across the world. What better way to introduce social issues to kids than through kids?

The filmmakers reached out to the Vargas family to thank them for their participation. They agreed to pay the expenses for the kids’ continuing education to keep the boys out of the mines. They calculated the pay of an experienced miner and gave the family that much to live on. The filmmakers started them out then aid org stepped up to take over aiding the family. The Vargas family is no longer living on the mountain. They have a house in the city with a storefront where their mother will soon begin selling wares.

The film has brought increased attention to the living and working conditions of the miners and the outreach just keeps growing. The Devil’s Miner has the potential to change the lives of all the miners in a very real way. You can learn more about getting involved and find links to donate on the film’s website.

The Devil’s Miner
is currently in limited theatrical release in the US and opens in Europe in November.

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