Working in a mine work may not be the most dangerous job in the world (believe it or not,   ocean fisherman have the most dangerous jobs)  but the idea of working deep under the earth, never seeing the sun, much less getting sealed up in a mine brings shudders of horror to most.

This year has brought a spate of mining tragedies to world attention in China, the United States,  South Africa and Chile.  The sealing up of 33  Chilean miners  and their  release after  two months of desperate work  gripped the world.

Most of these mining stories involve men, which is hard enough to bear.  When the story involves children, killed or simply hard at work,  how much worse. A major portion of  Freidrich Engles’ The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, was about child labor in the mines, recently[1842] prohibited in Great Britain until a child was over 10!   The history of the American Labor movement and the United Mineworkers in particular has engraved in our minds photos of grimy young boys peering into the cameras, photos which gave intensity and immediacy to union organizing and national legislation.  Most of us would imagine such exploitation is over.  Far from it.

The Devil’s Miner is a documentary movie about the mines of the  famous Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) in Bolivia, a hill so rich it became the location of the capitol, Potosi despite the extreme altitude — 14,300 ft–, and still produces minerals — mostly silver–  long after the Spanish conquistadores turned them into engines for its empire.  There isn’t one mine in the Cerro Rico, there are hundreds of them, many  mined by rag-tag groups of miners with little capital, primitive equipment and few safety standards.  Here a boy can become a miner at the age of 12, an experienced one at the age of 14.

Filmmakers Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani took their cameras deep into one of the mines with one small crew.  The center of interest, and main voice of the film,  is Basilio, now 14 but who started working in the mines at the age of 10 when his father died.  The film is low key and unadorned with no fancy visuals or subplots.  The cameras follow Basilio, his 12 year old brother and some of their  adult co-workers deep into the mines.  We see ore cars being hand pushed along their rails through treacherous mud, the kids having learned where there are niches to get out of the way.  We see Basilio learning the rudiments of explosives, and working in the whirling dust of drilling, with breathing apparatus and covered with cloth head covers.  He speaks knowledgeably about silicosis and the death it brings.

We see the two boys and all the men constantly stuffing small coca leaves into their mouths until one cheek, packed, looks like an enormous goiter.  Far from the romance  certain privileged citizens have of coca — after all ‘It’s natural’ — it looks like a least good choice: chew this or be taken out in a box.  To misquote Dylan,  “Do not praise what you don’t understand.”

We also see Basilio outside the mines and on the surface, living in a single room stone hut with his mother and three siblings.  We can only imagine the cold at such an altitude, the difficulty in getting and preparing food.  He is the father figure to the others. He knows it and his mother knows it.  He plays soccer with his brother, cuddles his younger sister.  He is a happy, well-spoken kid; someone we would all be proud to have as a child.  And he dreams of school, learning and the world beyond his tiny village.

In fact he is shown at school, anxious to learn but knowing, short of a miracle, the family needs him at work, sometimes at 24 hour shifts in the mine, sometimes in heat reaching 100 degrees.

Though not as slick as many current documentaries, Devil’s Miner is a very very good film — a great one for US youngsters to see as they begin to look at, and travel around the world.  A great one for anyone going to Bolivia, Chile, Peru or any country with great, hand worked mines.  A great one to remember when we think it would be cool to have some Potosi silver, a trinket to flash and think no more about.  After watching this film, any such silver you wear will have the signification of our Aids or Cancer ribbons — worn in memory and support,  not simply for adornment.

And, by the way, a similar movie could be made in India,  Africa, Mongolia, the Philippines,  Nepal, Madagascar….