DAY NINE November 11, 2005
THE DEVIL'S MINER Tells Distressing Tale of Child Labor
by Victoria Colebrooke
From black gold to conflict diamonds, Mother Earth seems to have a way of luring her residents to attain her bounty by any means necessary--even at the price of spiritual compromise, and often by the sacrifice of innocence.
Seven years ago filmmakers Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani learned of the Potosi miners. What captured their interest initially was the fact that devout Orthodox Catholics within this Bolivian city were willing to sever their ties with God upon entering the Cerro Rico mines believed to be ruled by the devil, Tio, in an attempt to uncover any wealth of silver left behind by the Spanish conquistadors of the 16th century. A research trip to Bolivia revealed much more to this American-European documentary duo. They learned that of the 9,000 Potosi miners that continue the job daily--with primitive means of protection and outmoded equipment--hundreds of them are children.
THE DEVIL'S MINER is chiefly the story of 14-year-old Basilio Vargas and his 12-year-old brother Bernardino, both of whom work the mines of Cerro Rico. Raised without a father, and living in virtual poverty with their mother on the slopes of the mine, the boys assume many adult responsibilities. They must work to afford the clothing and supplies vital to their education. Basilio believes only the mountain devil's generosity will allow them to earn enough money to continue the new school year. Without an education, the brothers have no chance to escape their destiny in the silver mines.
THE DEVIL'S MINER made its World Premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival earlier this year, and has won more than a dozen Festival awards internationally. Understandably, it has also sparked an intense desire in many audience members to be proactive about assisting the children of the mines. Co-director Kief Davidson shares that one question heard in almost every Q&A session following the screenings is, "What can I do to help?"
Already the German-based organization Kindernothilfe (KNH) has committed itself to a donation DVD release in conjunction with the theatrical release of the film in that country. For every DVD sold, 10 Euros will be directly donated to the children of the mines. The DVD includes a follow-up with the Vargas family, and reaction to the film in Bolivia. Currently, THE DEVIL'S MINER is scheduled for theatrical release on 120 screens in seven European countries, including the UK, France and Spain. There are theatrical offers for the US market, which should be decided upon within the next few weeks. Davidson says that the film's selection for AFI FEST has been a big help in that regard. "Oh, it's been great," he says. "I especially think the KODAK CONNECT program is the best--a great way to meet industry professionals."
Just raising funds for the movie was quite a challenge for the filmmakers, though. Davidson, an American, feels that he and Richard Ladkani, an Austrian, were able to pull it off by pooling their resources from both the American and European markets. This has definitely given them many more inroads for a story that needs to be told. Working as a team, Davison and Ladkani scraped together money from various international sources and began production in 2004. Drawing on their unique skill sets, they also designated key positions for production and post-production--with Ladkani assuming the role of cinematographer and Davidson that of editor.
It was a split that made sense. While Davidson sizzles in this genre--having directed and produced documentaries for The Discovery Channel, ABC News, PBS and A&E--he began his filmmaking career in 1993 as editor on the Academy Award-nominated documentary BLOOD TIES, is the recipient of two Emmy nominations for his work with National Geographic, and on the journalistic film WHAT'S NEWS? earned an International Monitor Award for Best Editing. Ladkani, meanwhile, has worked as a cameraman, director and cinematographer, and produced documentaries on topics ranging from wildlife to politics. Ladkani has also worked as a cinematographer on big-budget historical documentaries involving large-scale reenactments in far-flung foreign locales, so THE DEVIL'S MINER's setting was nothing new to him.
Still, funding the production wasn't the filmmakers' only challenge; settling on their lead subjects was equally important. The challenge for the pair was finding a young boy who could carry and narrate a feature-length film. After interviewing 10 families, the filmmakers were introduced to Basilio Vargas, who captivated them with his positive energy, intelligence and articulate speech. Basilio, along with his younger brother Bernardino and sister Vanessa, were completely natural in front of the camera. The family enthusiastically agreed to participate and welcomed the crew into their home.
Ladkani and Davidson quickly found out that filming in the mines was no easy task. The likelihood of tunnel collapses, toxic gases, runaway carts and dynamite explosions created constant anxiety. At an altitude of almost 15,000 feet, they relied on chewing coca leaves and chocolate bars to battle relentless headaches and fatigue. To combat the claustrophobic tunnels of Cerro Rico, the filmmakers chose to shoot with a small digital camera, as anything larger would have been impossible. The camera was wrapped in multiple layers of plastic bags to protect it from fine dust, but it was not enough to keep all the particles out. The miners' open-flame carbon lamps were used as the main source of lighting. Just a few strategically placed lamps had the power to light an entire scene. These lamps also had the benefit of being able to detect poisonous gases; if the flame blew out, that indicated the need to leave immediately. Concern for the boys grew as Davidson and Ladkani experienced their reality firsthand. Still, the filmmakers tried to capture the unfolding drama without losing sight of the children's safety.
When asked if Basilio had accompanied him to any festival screenings, or would be accompanying him to the AFI FEST 2005 screening November 11 at 10:00 p.m., Davidson offers, "We get that question a lot, but felt that to uproot a young boy from such conditions would pose even greater harm to him. We arranged a screening in Cochabamba, Bolivia for him and the other child miners and it went very well."
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