Those of you who've been trying to get your kids to do something/anything around the house may want to check out The Devil's Miner. Better yet, take your kids with you. You'll be able to point out how bad things could be for them. They'll be able to remind you that our country has child-labor laws. Bolivia doesn't, unfortunately. And this profoundly moving documentary introduces us to a young man Ã?' he certainly qualifies as a man Ã?' who spends up to 24 hours in a row deep inside Cerro Rico, a mountain that's been coughing up various minerals for over 450 years. All but depleted today, it provided a lot of the funding for the Spanish Empire, claiming an estimated eight million lives in exchange. No wonder the indigenous people who work there, slaves in all but name, call it "The Mountain That Eats Men." Their average life expectancy is around 40.
Basilio Vargas, at 14, has his whole life ahead of him, however short. And he lives his life with such quiet determination that you never quite get around to feeling sorry for him. Concern? Yes. Respect? Absolutely. But not sorrow; he's too dignified for that. Having lost his father when he was 2, Basilio became the head of the family, entering the mines at age 10 to supplement his mother's meager income. His brother, Bernardino, who's 12, also works in the mines, and the filmmakers Ã?' Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani Ã?' take us down there with them. Dark, dusty and often hellishly hot, it provides any number of possible ways to die: carbon monoxide, arsenic, an explosion, a collapse, falling rocks. But it's that dust that'll get you if nothing else does. After years of breathing it in, miners start coughing up blood. Then, in a final scream for fresh air, their lungs literally burst.
Basilio doesn't intend to hang around that long. Dreaming of becoming a teacher someday, he attends school when he's able Ã?' a vacation of sorts for him, although his schoolmates call him "dust sucker" and "rock thief." And if the movie has a flaw, it's that we don't get a firm sense of the socioeconomic trap Basilio has fallen into. Do the other students' fathers not work in the mines? And if not, where do they work? We're led to believe that PotosÃ?, the highest city in the world and once the largest and richest, owes its entire existence to the pile of rock hovering nearby. At any rate, several centuries' worth of mining have left their mark on the landscape. El Dorado shorn of its gold, PotosÃ? has a strange beauty, the sky almost on fire as the sun sets on a mountain that still hasn't quite lost is appetite.