A Buñuelian Look By Gerald Peary
by Gerald Peary
Our three-person FIPRESCI jury, selecting the Best First Documentary out of 21 Hot Docs choices, picked The Devil’s Miner. It’s a heartbreaking look at the life of a 14-year-old Bolivian boy, Basilio Varagas, who works monstrous hours in a notorious silver mine which, the legend says, has killed 8 million employees over the centuries. If you don¹t die of rockfalls, you succumb before you¹re forty of lung disease. But how can anyone breathe there in normal circumstances?
The Cerro Rico mine lords over a town which is the highest altitude of any in North or South America, 15,000 feet above sea level. Can Basilio, a nice, smart, deep-thinking kid, escape? He dreams of being a teacher, and, the few days he can manage to get to school, he absorbs the lessons with a passion. What a moving moment when, back in the mines, he repeats to his little brother (also a child miner!) what he¹s learned today, about the planets, about Mercury¹s location in the galaxy, how Mercury is the tiniest planet.
It’s obvious that the talented filmmakers (Kief Davidson, an American, and Richard Ladkani, an Austrian) have absorbed their Bunuel. Recall the moment in Bunuel¹s Land Without Bread, where the little girl dies on the steps while the documentarians stand by filming. The same ethical question is implied here for the audience to contemplate: what is the responsibility of the filmmakers toward their beleagured, impoverished protagonist? Is it their documenary duty to keep shooting his miserable life without interference, maintaining objectivity and distance? Or is it their moral duty to intervene, give Basilio a pile of money so he can leave the mines and dedicate himself to education?
As in Los Olvidados, the nice kid tries to squeeze out of his sordid daily life: the scenes with Basilio shyly making his way to school remind of Bunuel’s Pedro in the realm of the social worker. But so far, fortunately, Basilio hasn¹t met his Jaibo! And here¹s a difference from Bunuel, in which dank poverty always results in crude, violent, Darwinian behavior. The Devil¹s Miner brings credibility to the old romantic cliché of the”noble peasant.” Basilio really is a lovely little boy, and so is his brother, sister, and almost-toothless mother. They stick together, and care about each other, like the Joads of The Grapes of Wrath. I do think that the anti-clerical Bunuel, who delighted in contradictions, would approve of the priest, interviewed on camera, who abides over the dirt-poor mining community.
He cares so deeply for his flock that he’s willing to understand, and totally forgive, when they set up pagan idols of devil figures deep in the coal mines. This compassionate priest understands that Catholicism can¹t improve life down in the pits, but maybe bowing down before a statue of Satan can get Basilio and his companeros (several hundred children work in the mines) through a terrible day in the dark.
Kudos to the filmmakers, who risked their own lives bending down (and breathing dust) in the mine shafts to bring Basilio’s remarkable story to the world. Somehow, The Devil’s Miner is also formally beautiful, a work of cinema, why our jury unanimously awarded it with our FIPRESCI prize.