Mine the details

The Devil’s Miner

In 1937, Walt Disney released a film called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which advanced the theory that sentencing little people to lives of hard labor in underground mines was a jolly, whistle-happy experience to be enjoyed by all.

Nearly seven decades later, the American-Austrian team of Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani have fashioned a compelling response with The Devil’s Miner, a bleak yet clear-eyed documentary about underage silver miners working deep in the mountains of Bolivia.

The film follows 14-year-old Basilio, a veteran of the Cerro Rico mines since the age of 10. He and his younger brother Bernardino, working 24-hour shifts and chewing coca leaves to give them energy and stave off hunger, earn $2.50 a day laboring in a profession where the life expectancy rarely reaches past 40.

Silicosis (from prolonged dust inhalation) and mine accidents are the main dangers, and the mountain of Cerro Rico is estimated to have claimed more than 8 million lives in its five centuries of operation.

The mountain’s mining history stretches back to the days of Spanish colonialism and enslavement; the current near-enslavement of the miners and the shameful presence of child laborers seem like the natural continuation of a half-millennium of cultural imperialism.

The Devil’s Miner works best as a cultural document of a particularly brutal way of life. The miners believe that the mountain is ruled by a devil called “Tio” (“Uncle”), and they build elaborate shrines adorned with offerings of alcohol and coca leaves. In Cerro Rico, God rules on the outside, but the devil holds dominion over the mines.

At its best, The Devil’s Miner recalls the work of Werner Herzog, especially in the way Davidson and Ladkani find beauty in an environment that seems forbidding and cruel.