Cinema Signal:

Above and below:
Peasants and miners in Oruro and northern Potosi, Bolivia

. "The Devil's Miner"

You wouldn't associate a miner with a 14-year old man-child, but this is Bolivia where even his younger brother helps out in trying to eke out a living from the silver overlooked during the Spanish Rule. It's an easier job to get than the more refined, rarer types of jobs available in the poor cities and communities.

The mine, which is a mountain of mineral deposits with over 20,000 tunnels is a place that god forgot, literally. The natives who might attend church and worship a Christian god think of the mines as the domain of the devil, which they call "Tio," a corruption of the word "Dio," or god. To stay on the good side of this demon, there is a statue of him in every mine to afford the workers the opportunity to place their sacrifices and offerings on his lap (and cigarettes in his mouth), to better fend off his taste for their blood, accidents, silicosis, and other calamities.

The most pervasive of which, Black Lung disease, is the inheritance of many who've spent their lives in the subterranean world and one that the children who now work there understand and try to avoid. At least that's the level of awareness of young Basilio Vargas and his 12-year old broher Bernardino as they work in "the mine that eats men."

Raised without a father and living in poverty with their mother on the slopes of the mine, the boys assume many adult responsibilities and dangers to provide family necessities, including their own education, which they realize is their only out from a short life of interminable struggle.

Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani document their central figure's existence in the depths as a means of survival, his off hours at play, his precocious awareness, and his engagment in communal rituals. They provide enough variety in this far away culture to maintain interest in the subjects and a clear look at the existence available to poor families in a third world country but their achievement here is in presenting a role-model of a boy with the great skill of articulating his impressive determination and plan for self-improvement.

Their camera contrasts the stark beauty of the landscape during tranquil twilight hours against the forbidding danger of the work that has taken many lives--work that involves blasting, harmful dust and the mining cars that come streaking through the tunnels like an Abrams tank on PCP. The person who doesn't move out of the way swiftly enough loses a leg or gets crushed. Plenty to worry about for such meager pay.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Basilio Vargas with "Tio," lord of the tunnels.
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