Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 24, 2006 9:06 am 
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Quietly devastating film about child miners in Bolivia

The Devil’s Miner at first looked like less than it was. The film shown in the tiny auditorium appeared to be a poorly projected video with garish digital color. Viewers afterwards seemed to think the prizes at small film festivals were unjustified in a world of penguins and Michael Moore. Here we have only miners and simple indios of the mountains and the focus is on a couple of boys who have to work at a dangerous job. But appearances were deceiving because the experience provided by the film, intimate and overwhelming, was one of tremendous power. This documentary shows us what the young Basilio’s foreman says: that the situation of children working in Bolivia’s silver mines out of economic necessity is one of infinite sadness.

The title refers to an extraordinary belief that the workers have here, and have held for four hundred years, since the conquistadors who first forced them to work in the mines for precious metals and devised ways of keeping them in thrall to fear. Inside every section of every mine is a terrifying horned image of “Tio,” Satan, the Devil. It is this god who is believed to reign over the horror of the mines and the idols must be constantly propitiated with offerings and sometimes blood sacrifices to keep Tio from taking revenge by killing the miners in accidents or explosions. Nothing, no gifts to the idols, can however keep the men who work here from dying at 40 or 45 of silicosis. And this is a fact that even a young boy knows all about, as he knows about the need to keep Tio happy. The early deaths of the fathers keeps the cycle going, forcing more children to work in the mines to support their families. The Devil’s Minor is a story older than globalization; it represents the oppression of the poor to harvest precious objects for the rich, which has been a given of human life since its origins, and in this case has a special cast of racism and colonialization allowed to persist by native governments.

The beautiful and articulate Basilio Vargas, the main subject of this film and its chief narrator, is a Bolivian boy of fourteen; his brother Bernardino is twelve. When their father died they and their mother moved high up in the Andean mountains near the town of Potosí so they could work in the mine of Cerro Rico – one of the silver mines that have been worked so long they now yield little. Later Basilio goes to work without his brother at a bigger, more dangerous but more active mine where he can make more money because the yield is higher. Whereever they are there are the idols of Tio to propitiate and bunches of coca that must be chewed in the morning to give strength, keep them awake, and stave off hunger.

Statistics are not a heavy emphasis of this film, but it does inform us that 800 children currently work in Cerro Rico, and that these mines have been worked for 400 years.

At school the articulate Basilio is shy and silent, because he’s hiding that he works in the mine. The students make fun of miner kids and call them thieves or dust grabbers.

The town priest talks about the dichotomy that has grown up, Dio vs. Tio. The people don’t think that Dio, the traditional Christian God, prevails in the dark world of the mines. The mines with their deep passages and collapsing supports, their explosions and carbon monoxide and headache-inducing poisonous dust, are not the realm of a benevolent higher power. They’re the realm of Satan himself. Hence the Devil is worshipped in the mines, but the priest recognizes that he must accept this as the way things are here.

Basilio’s story is that the name Tio arose because the Indios had no D sound in the Quechua language and so they said “Tio.” Perhaps the whole Tio-worship has origins in pre-Christian religion, but the film shows us the world through the eyes of Basilio.

Basilio explains everything to us in simple, clear, schoolboy Spanish. He is a lucid tour guide to the claustrophobic world in which he is forced to live at present. But he is also superstitious. He doesn’t have quite the atavistic fear of the Tio idols of his younger brother, but he believes profoundly in the need to propitiate Tio. And the knowledge that he brings back from his half-days at school is shaky. Nonetheless the film, which follows him and his brother to shops where their mother spends money it’s taken her two months to accumulate so the boys can get school uniforms and then haircuts, also follows Basilio to the classroom and shows him quietly beginning to contribute. Perhaps he will achieve his dream of becoming a schoolteacher. The film also shows festival time, the happiest moment of the year, when the boys dance for the first time in a boy dance group called "Los Minoritos," in which the carry actual minors' tools and follow jaunty steps that mimic the minor's work.

Needless to say the filmmakers who entered the mines no matter how dangerous the locations took any risks necessary to show the life of Basiolio and Bernardino. They also are skillful at getting others to speak in the same simple, informative way: foremen, the boy's mother, the priest, Bernardino, all have a voice here. It's not necessary to make a complicated film to delivera complicated message. There are many questions, first among them: Is Bolivia's popular new leftist president Evo Morales going to allow children to be exploited in the mines? Can he do something about this?

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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