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Keeping the Devil Down in the Hole: New Doc Examines Child Miners in Bolivia

By Steven Rosen

From Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani's The Devil's Miner, which will air on PBS' Independent Lens series

The directors of The Devil's Miner, a new documentary about two young boys working in the fabled and terrifying silver mines of Bolivia's Cerro Rico mountain, knew this would be a tough film to make.

The cone-shaped mountain--"rich pinnacle" in English--towers above the surrounding landscape and, indeed, much of South America at 15,000 feet. It is honeycombed with as many as 20,000 mine tunnels.

When the Spanish arrived in the 16th Century, they forced Bolivian Indians to work as slaves to extract the silver. Cerro Rico became most lucrative silver mine in the New World, with the nearby Potosi becoming one of the richest cities.

But the lode is mostly played out now and there is great poverty. Some 9,000 miners still search for declining amounts of silver and occasionally make lucrative strikes. But because of the dangers from accidents, tunnel collapses and black-lung disease, the mortality rate is high. And the miners know this, referring to themselves as "walking dead."

Although otherwise devout Catholics, inside the hellish mines these Bolivians respect Tio--the devil--and create little shrines with offerings and figurines. Often their young sons are forced into work to support their widowed mothers and orphaned siblings. Other destitute children also come to the mines for work.

Besides winning the trust and support of such miners, filmmakers Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani knew they'd have to film in those shafts and tunnels themselves. And on several occasions, that proved as dangerous as they had feared.

The film captures one especially harrowing experience. The film's 14-year-old subject and narrator, a miner named Basilio Vargas, goes deep underground into a mine to learn from a supervisor about drilling techniques. Accompanying him, with small DV cameras and their soundman, were the two filmmakers. Working through a guide and translator, they had thought they were all going to a wet drilling zone.

"We had walked almost three kilometers down into the mountain and it turned out to be dry drilling," Davidson recalls. "There was very little oxygen and the dust was so thick you could hardly see. We were really scared for the boy; we weren't in the area very long and we pulled him out. It was very intense and he was miserable while it happened, but as soon as we left the mine, he was laughing. We were coughing up dust and black pellets for days afterward."

The feature will air May 23 on PBS's Independent Lens series; PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Latino Public Broadcasting were major funding sources. The film is scheduled to be released theatrically by First Run Features on March 17 in New York, with other cities to follow. Because the film also received European funding, it was released last November on 110 screens in seven European nations through CinemaNet Europe, which arranges theatrical release of digitally projected documentaries. The Devil's Miner had its theatrical premiere at the 2005 Rotterdam International Film Festival.

The genesis of this project came in the mid-1990s when Ladkani, an Austrian residing in Germany, went to Potosi to shoot still photos and became fascinated with the notion of Catholic miners worshiping the devil while at work. In 1999 he and Davidson, an American documentarian based in New York and Los Angeles, decided to pitch that subject as a film. They journeyed to Bolivia to do research.

When we got there, we discovered all the children who worked there," Davidson recalled. "It's a very, very depressing place; the poverty is widespread. We befriended this one 12-year-old who was a miner, and through his optimism and hope for getting out of the mines, we came to the conclusion that the best way to tell the story is through the eyes of a young boy. They still have hope where older miners know their days are numbered."

But it took so long to get financing that the filmmakers needed to find a new child miner when they returned in 2004. A guide arranged interviews with some 20 families, and Davidson and Ladkani immediately were drawn to Basilio. In the film, he is sweet but also mature beyond his years and a father figure to 12-year-old brother Bernardino (also a miner) and younger sister Vanessa.

Their widowed mother lives on the mountain, getting free rent and a small stipend in exchange for protecting a mine entrance from burglars. She is supportive of her sons' aiming for a life beyond the mines, but also has limited resources. There are many others like her on the mountain, since there are an estimated 500 entrances that need guards. The Vargas' deceased father was not a miner.

The film follows Basilio as he tries to go to school in Potosi, struggling to earn extra money for books and school clothes while enduring ostracism from other students because he is a miner. It also follows as he and Bernardino travel to their dreary jobs, chew cocoa leaves for energy and pay respects to the tios inside the mines. It's heart-breaking, but not totally despairing because the boys have hope.

And because the filmmakers were trying to show life on Cerro Rico through a boy's eyes, they also received cooperation from the adult miners. "The older miners really wanted their story told, where some of the younger ones at first were guarded," Davidson says. "They're not happy about the fact that when they die their sons are going to have to take over. There's a genuine sadness because they know their sons are next."

Those miners also offered practical support. "They looked out for us to make sure we didn't get hit by a mining cart," Davidson reflects. "We had enough warning--like 15 seconds."

When Davidson and Ladkani were through filming, they felt they had to help the Vargas family financially. "We couldn't leave without doing something," Davidson explains. "We figured out what the salary would need to be, if they had a father who was a master miner, to keep all three children in school. We set up a bank account with the mother. Our deal was: 'We'll send you money so the kids can go to school, but they can't work in the mines.' They've stuck with that." (He did not want that monetary amount revealed.)

The filmmakers also partnered with Kindernothlife Foundation, a European aid organization active in Potosi, to raise funds from special screenings and DVD sales to help expand its services to child miners. The president of Kindernothlife saw a special screening last fall in Bolivia and approached the filmmakers afterward. "He felt like an example had to be made of this family," Davidson says.

In early December, the family moved into an apartment in Potosi while the organization looked for a house for them. Kindernothlife is also helping the mother start a new business selling housewares. So, for now--and hopefully forever--Basilio and Bernardino are no longer the devil's miners.


Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based film writer and former movie critic at The Denver Post.