Over eight million workers have died in the mines over the years, and countless others have perished as a direct result of their hazardous working conditions. The average life expectancy is under forty.
With nine thousand miners currently working today, filmmakers Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson wisely chose to focus The Devil’s Miner on a personal story, that of 14-year-old Basilio Vargas. Basilio is now head of his family after the death of his father and he lives with his siblings and mother on the mountainside, supporting them through regular work in the mines. Articulate, intelligent and sensitive, his words give us insight into life in the mine and the nearby city of Potsoi, the highest in the world.
All existence here is coloured by the mines and by religion, both of which are Spanish legacies brought by the conquistadors who enslaved the Indios and forced them to dig for silver and by the missionaries who brought Catholicism. The result is a dual world of worship: outside the mines, the indigenous population believe in God, but inside, they believe in the power of the devil, “Tio”, as they refer to him, who controls their subterranean destiny. This is a fascinating look at how aspects of any organised religion can inculcate and encourage collective fear, and the most powerful moments are the personal ones. We see Basilio in the mines trying to teach his 12-year-old brother Bernardino how to avoid danger by worshipping the devil, offering gifts of alcohol, cocoa leaves and cigarettes to his craven images that adorn the tunnels. The film brilliantly captures their claustrophobia and trepidation, moving through tight, candle-lit tunnels as they run to avoid passing carts, lifting up their awed faces as they listen for hazardous blasts and staring at the eyes of the devil.
By contrast, in the light of day, a more carefree Basilio appears phlegmatic. He perfectly understands his situation: his continued school education – which he relishes and is determined to finish – is the only chance he will ever have to leave the mine. But it doesn’t come cheaply and it remains uncertain how long he will be able to continue. The film’s hope is the possibility of his freedom; but he is also responsible for his family, and his loyalty could ultimately seal his fate.
With this thought in mind, the words of the local priest strike a chilling note: “When I look at them,” he says, “I see Jesus dying again.” A poignant metaphor for their humbling situation rendered sensitively and skilfully here.