Film Review: The Devil’s Miner

Several documentaries have appeared since Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia, some of which are closely linked to political developments in that country. The Devil’s Miner, by Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani, is instead a social document that avoids overt political comment. Premiered in 2005, it was finally shown in La Paz in October 2006 and welcomed as providing an outside viewpoint invaluable in the comprehension of national reality. One critic saw it as “essential in order to understand the world of the Potosí mines.”

Keith John Richards

Several documentaries have appeared since Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia, some of which are closely linked to political developments in that country. The Devil’s Miner, by Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani, is instead a social document that avoids overt political comment. Premiered in 2005, it was finally shown in La Paz in October 2006 and welcomed as providing an outside viewpoint invaluable in the comprehension of national reality. One critic saw it as “essential in order to understand the world of the Potosí mines.”

The Devil’s Miner, (DVD, 2006, 82 minutes), a film by Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani, distributed by First Run/Icarus Films, www.the devilsminer.com

The choice of Potosí as location is in itself significant—the filmmakers could have chosen other, dowdier mining areas in Bolivia. But they appear to have been attracted by the symbolic value of Potosí as well as the city’s visual impact. Potosí, as one of the miners points out, once held the largest urban population in the Western Hemisphere, bigger than London or Paris in the 17th century. Still the world’s highest city, it is also one of the most visually dramatic. The massive cone of the Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain), source of much of the silver that flowed into Spain’s coffers from its American colonies, looms over the city as a topographical and historical behemoth.

The film certainly does not neglect the opportunity to exploit the didactic possibilities offered by its location. Lugubrious electronic music accompanies an introductory caption explaining that the Cerro Rico has been exploited for more than 450 years and that more than 5,000 indigenous miners working in cooperatives still search for any remaining minerals. The estimate that at least 8 million people have died in the mines (according to the foreman Braulio) might be contested by historians, but what is undeniable is the grim legacy giving rise to the epithet “the mountain that eats men.” The discovery of one of the richest silver lodes ever found appeared to confirm God’s approval of Spanish domination. Potosí became central to the so-called Black Legend with which the Protestant powers of northern Europe condemned Spanish colonial practices, among which was the mita (contributory service in the mines during Inca times, adopted by the new rulers as an alternative to the outright slavery then officially forbidden).

The miners’ fear of the mountain is, however, entirely justified. It has as much to do with the here-and-now as with historical statistics and colonial propaganda. These workers, including some of tender age, like Basilio Vargas (14 when this film was made) and his younger brother Bernardino (then 12), are fully aware of the dangers they face. This is rendered visually by the ponderous entry made by Ladkani’s camera into the mouth of the mine to the barely audible clink of hammer against chisel. The tools belong to Basilio, and attention switches to his fresh face as he introduces himself, his brother, and the foreman Saturnino. The most dangerous part of his job, which consists of chiseling holes in the rock and inserting explosive charges, is tapping the stick of dynamite into the hole; the charge might detonate with, of course, lethal consequences.

Basilio, who had already been working for four years when this documentary appeared, was carefully chosen as an intelligent, articulate, and agreeable subject whose frankness and equanimity is refreshing. He speaks with genuine confidence rather than bravado, yet the transparent emotion in his gaze and voice is contagious. He inspires sympathy rather than pity. Basilio is allowed to tell his own story; his tone and delivery comply with the film’s avoidance of sentimentalism. He is fully conscious of the possibility of an early death—either through a mine accident or from the insidious effects of silicosis. Most miners die well before they reach 45, and Basilio is anxious to study and escape this fate.

His mother, Manuela, shares this hope. A Quechua speaker whose earnings from guarding the mine entrance do not suffice to maintain three children, she is 37 but looks far older. Her husband, who was not a miner, nevertheless died relatively young. Basilio is not only a vulnerable boy but also the breadwinner, essential to the well-being of all of them. Stark shots of the stone shack far above the city they call home, sharing space with mining machinery and piles of rubble, is contrasted with the often amusing and touching scenes within. Basilio plays with his six-year-old sister Vanessa, who calls him papa; jokes and wrestles with Bernardino under the blankets; and talks of his mother’s taste for horror films among the fare offered on their small battery-powered television.

The film operates an effective interaction between the private lives of its subjects and the implacable economic realities that surround them. Spectacular shots of Basilio and other family members walking the dirt roads above Potosí remind us of their marginal existence, but their descent into the city brings them to a far more benign environment. This is reflected in the cheerful Andean music (sanjuanitos from Ecuador are chosen for some reason) that accompanies the entire family, buying uniforms in the markets for the imminent opening of the school year, and visiting barbers for the regulation “semi-mushroom” haircut.

Education is the great hope: Basilio is seen at the school, which represents practically a holiday for him, providing a crucial stimulus to his imagination. It is an inevitably piecemeal lesson “about the universe” in which the relative sizes of planets in the solar system are explained. Well-intentioned teachers work in limited circumstances, inculcating respect for the national flag and anthem and integrating religious values into everyday life. There are few girls in the class, but Basilio doesn’t associate with them in any case because they scratch and play rough. This glimpse of universal childhood reappears as he and Bernardino hurl water bombs at girls during the carnival procession that offers one of the community’s main diversions. Another universal is the unthinking cruelty of childhood; Basilio talks in his noncommittal way about being stigmatized and mocked by schoolmates because he works in the shaft.

The contrast between the opportunity for reverie presented by classes and the bleak reality of work is eloquently expressed in a scene where the brothers pause in the mine to chat about school. They are interrupted by the sound of explosions and have to hurry to the surface—counting the explosions, because it is essential that these match the number of charges actually laid.

The foreman Saturnino points out that this is infinitely more than just a working environment. The miners’ identity is a source of pride and their place of work a distinct spiritual universe. We gain access to this duality from various perspectives—those of the miners themselves (through Saturnino and another foreman, Braulio), from the brothers about to enter the pit, and through the perspective of a priest, Father Jesús. As Saturnino puts it, “Outside we believe in God, we cross ourselves. But inside we believe in Satan.” The Tío, a deity venerated and feared by workers as lord and guardian of the mine, must be paid utter respect and regularly made offerings. Basilio explains to Bernardino that Tío (Spanish for uncle) in this context is a corruption of the Spanish Dios (God). An imposing effigy represents this deity at the entrance to every mine; the Tío has the power to take or spare lives and must be constantly appeased. Basilio gives his brother a remarkably coherent explanation of the Tío’s significance as they chew coca under its forbidding gaze.

Another example of the miners’ spirituality arises at the ceremonial sacrifice of a llama to the Tío. The miners hope that the sated deity will desist from taking human life. We see a splash of the animal’s blood against the wall next to the cross above the mine entrance, a powerful expression of spiritual ambivalence. Father Jesús seems to misunderstand the essential paradox involved here. The priest sees the church’s failure when he witnesses the miners’ divided worship. But Christianity is part and parcel of the cultural and economic imposition that forces people into the mine in the first instance; their actions are geared toward self-preservation. The same applies to the strategy adopted by Braulio, who marks Basilio’s first day at the Rosario mine by taking him into its very depths. The gang of drillers attacking the vein with pneumatic equipment creates an inferno of noise, dust, and confusion admirably caught on film—an approximation of the terrifying and sobering effect this is intended to exert on the youngster.

The Devil’s Miner is an excellent documentary that is at once moving, poetic, and informative. Ladkani and Davidson have avoided overt political commentary; they leave any reflection on Bolivian politics to the viewer, and the filming predates the election of Morales. Moreover, they elide the U.S. role in Bolivian mining. Nevertheless this documentary perfectly illustrates its theme and will be of use to universities, study and pressure groups, and anyone interested in the still bleak and enduring colonial legacy in Latin America.

And the impact of this film is not limited to aesthetic value and affective power. A German NGO, Kindernothilfe, donated 1 million euros in aid of the street children of Potosí, though the film does not explicitly claim credit for this. The DVD’s extras show a relieved Basilio having escaped the mines, but this happy ending still applies to a tiny proportion of Bolivian children forced into work, or life on the streets, by economic hardship.


Keith John Richards teaches literature and film at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in La Paz, Bolivia. His book, tentatively titled Latin America Through Film, is forthcoming from McFarland in 2008.
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