The devil in question is not the devil of abundance found in pagan ritual traced back to the horned gods of Pan, nor the closely linked neo-modern devil of the British occultist Aleister Crowley, much less the debased spectres of horror that have been a mainstay of western cinema. It is the devil of Christian Conquistadors that enslaved much of South America several centuries ago. They forced the indigenous people to work 24hr shifts in the mines with only four hours of sleep, kept awake with coca leaves. When the native Bolivians tried to revolt, they introduced fear of the devil to keep them in line.
The story is told more than once in the film, suggesting that the miners know of its invented origin but still fear and believe it. Outside the mines, Jesus Christ is supreme, and a cross surmounts the entrance. But inside, in the depths of the mountain, they are isolated. Thousands, maybe millions, have died in the mines of the 'Mountain that Eats Men', killed by explosions, accidents, or just the silicosis that eats away the lungs and kills men in their thirties. In every mine is a Devil, with an altar, and offerings are made to avert calamity. If the Devil is not given offerings, he will take them in human flesh.
The high male death rate means that many children are orphaned. Boys as young as 12 and 14 become the heads of their households and go to work in the mines to support the families. Necessity means laws against child labour are ignored. They chew coca leaves, which averts tiredness and hunger and increases their strength. About 800 children live on the mountain in Potosi, and most will never leave. At one stage, when yield from the mines had been particularly poor, we see the villagers calmly and routinely making an animal sacrifice. The blood of the unfortunate llama is splashed across the mine entrance as an appeasement to the anger of the Devil as they pray that he will not inflict harm on them and will release unto them the secret wealth of the mines. The kids are earning $2 a day.
Simply filming it looked harrowing. I asked Kief Davidson (one of the directors) if he had been scared at all or found filming in such dangerous conditions challenging. He mentioned that in one scene, where they are examining the Devil in a particular mine, one of the boys looks round suddenly a moment or two before the scene cuts. The reason (not shown in the film) was that there had been an explosion (unexploded dynamite is a constant hazard) and the miners wanted to get out before the tunnel collapsed and killed them all. But what worried them more was the fact that the film crew attempted to take some of the trappings from the Devil's altar.
This movie could easily have been a political one, a protest. The filmmakers chose instead to focus on the story of two young boys, Basilio and Bernadino. They face daily horrors, approach the shrine of the devil with awe and full knowledge of the local Catholic priest, dream of escaping the life of the mines for a better job. The humility and pride of the miners, and the strength with which the child workers bear such tragedy, is gut-wrenching.
As a footnote, Kief Davidson (at the Edinburgh International Film Festival) told me how the film company, together with a local sponsor from the first screening, had managed to ensure that for those two boys at least, the dream become reality.
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