How do we live in dignity?
Especially when you are 14 years old, living in Potosi, Bolivia, and you work at a mine inCerro Rico, “the mountain that eats men”? The mines there have been exploited for 450 years and are responsible for 8 million dead. Initially, exploited by the Spaniards, the mines were taken over by the Indios (indigenous peoples) and run as cooperatives but it is still as dangerous and it is still drudgery.
The film’s central character is Basilio He is 14 and has been working in the mines since he was ten. He lost his father when he was two, so, now, he is the father in the family, so much so that his little sister, Vanessa, calls him “papa”. He works with his little brother Bernardino, who is twelve (also in the mines). The boys go to school for half a day and spend the rest of the time working in the mines.
The film centers around the interviews (and voice-overs) with the children, their mother, the foremen at the mines where Basilio works. The mother makes $25 a month, she had to save for two months to pay the $45 needed for school uniforms.
The documentary adopts a self-effacing style: let the children and the mine be the main presence. And what a presence it is. The camera is like a fly-on-the-wall within the mines so that we get to really experience the claustrophobia of crawling down poorly lit and protected galleries. We get to hear the explosions nearby and the run for the exits.
At the second mine where Basilio works, the camera gets foggy as the temperature rises up to over 100 degrees as Basilio goes way below the surface, almost a kilometer away from the exit. And when he gets introduced to level 4 (the deepest level), we follow him in the thick dust (he does not have a mask) and we meet the drillers, those with very few years of life expectancy.
Everyone working at the mine chews coca leaves to fight off the hunger, the lack of air in the mine, the exhaustion and the heat. The mines have been worked for so long that getting silver is getting harder and harder, so, there is little money to be made. Initially, Basilio makes $2.5 a day, so, he goes to work in a bigger and more dangerous mine for $4 (but if he gets hurt, his salary would be halved).
The brutality and cruelty of this life that is not without joy, like playing soccer on a Sunday afternoon (while getting a playpal for your little sister so that she doesn’t mess your soccer game with all her fouls!), watching movies on a battery-operated television set from the dark ages(horror films are the mother’s favorites) or dancing at the annual Festival, or just going to school (which feels like a vacation to Basilio).
School is everybody’s hope at the mine. All the miners, the children and the parents want the children to go to school, study and get the hell away from the mines. It is sad to see Basilio acknowledging that he does not tell anyone at the school that he works at the mines because it is a social stigma and the other kids have pretty nasty nicknames for miner children. But school is his hope, and compared to the work at the mine, it’s easy and relaxing.
Life for the miners is deeply immersed in spirituality, mysticism and religion. Most indios are catholic and go to mass on a regular basis. There is a cross at the entrance of the mines. However, the cross is there to prevent the devil, El Tio, from escaping from the mine. Inside the mine, there is no God or Jesus, it is the realm of the devil. El Tio decides who lives and who dies. So, all the miners give him offering (coca leaves, bread and alcohol) so he won’t hurt them and help them fine good silver lines. And when productivity is low, the Indios sacrifice a llama at the entrance of the mine, throwing its blood on the mine walls and sharing the meat. So, there is a mix of catholicism, devil/spirit worship and local paganism because you never have enough supernatural forces on your side when you have to live that life.
And as the young Potosi catholic priest says: “When I look into their faces I feel we have not yet done what we should have. When I look at them I see Jesus dying again without hope and nobody at their side.” And these faces are incredibly expressive but the miners and the children do not complain. They have hopes dreams and fears, but no bitterness. The only trace of regret we see is when Basilio imagines the life he would have had if his father had not died and compares it to what his life is like now, you can see in his eyes the profound sadness at his knowledge of what he misses and lacks.
It is appalling that, in the 21st century, people still have to eke out a living in such a fashion. It is such an incredibly hard life where the mountain and the mines have an organic presence. Through El Tio, the miners have established a personal mystical relationship with the mountain but it provides very little security or certainty. It only makes the numerous deaths and injuries more acceptable so that they make slightly more sense.
The DVD contains, among the numerous special features, a one-year later update on the boys. Thanks to the German NGO Kindernothilfe (project with the child miners in Potosi), they no longer work in the mine and are full-time students. That same NGO also received a one million euros donation from German organizations specifically for child miners in Bolivia. CARE also has projects going on there in Potosi.
However, not all children are being helped, just this morning, this article from the BBC reminded me of the plight of these children:
“”I work out of necessity,” explains 12-year-old driller Ramiro, helmet in hand, as he stands at the entrance of one of the mines that honeycomb the Cerro Rico – meaning Rich Hill – that towers above the town.
He feels bad because he knows that working in the mine puts his health at risk, he says, and “that is what every single one of the children that works inside feels; sometimes some die, some survive”.
Wiping his sweaty forehead, which is covered in dark dust, he adds: “For us, who work inside the mine, it is not good; the mine brings a lot of disease, a lot of death.”
It is prolonged exposure to that dust that gives the average miner a life expectancy of only 40 years. The culprit is what they call the “mal de mina”, the lung disease silicosis. (…)
Girls also go underground. Abigail, who is 10 years old, works inside the mine, loading minerals into the wagons, and sometimes outside, cleaning the mineral mills with her four-year-old sister.
They lost their father last year to silicosis, so prevalent among miners. Abigail works eight hours every night, then goes to bed at dawn and anxiously wakes up to go to school at noon.
“I’ve started to work because of lack of money, because my family had no money, we had nothing to eat,” she explains.
“It’s hard, I feel like I am already a mother or something because I am working this hard, but I don’t want my mother to work because she might also get silicosis or some other disease, something similar to what killed my dad.”
Cupping a small piece of shiny mineral rock in her hands, she says: “My dream is to study, to have a profession and work in something else, basically, to get out of the mine.”
Throwing the rock away, she adds: “The mine summons death and I am too young to be called yet.””
How do we live in dignity?