His name is Basilio. He's the leading man in a documentary journey that takes you face to face with the devil.
I am in awe. For 82 minutes yesterday I was taken by the hand and walked, footstep by muddy footstep under the blood spattered cross, and down - down - down - into the silver mines of Cerro Rico, Bolivia. My guide was Basilo Vargas, a wonderfully engaging 14 year old who's father died when he was 2. Basilio is the oldest of 3, and they call him 'papa' because he's the family bread winner.
The journey that Basilio takes me on is deeply personal, extraordinarily frightening, and political in more ways than I can even begin to explain. While I know that there filmmakers involved in this journey - to their credit - they are invisible. For an hour and a half it's just me, and this child - exploring the world of "Tio" a devil god who can kill you with explosions, cave in's, or silicosis of the lungs. Everyone seems to agree that God's power ends at the entrance to the caves - and that without the protection of the Devil, death is inevitable.
This is a film that does so many things right. Basilio is the narrator, and his guidance and guileless is extraordinary. The danger is palpable at every turn - leading you to wonder why a camera crew would expose itself to the endless crashing danger of wagons without breaks, 95+ degree heat, sticks of dynamite, methane gas, and so man other untold dangers.
We know why Basilio is there - but why are WE? Well, thanks to Keif Davidson, and Richard Ladkani - who build extraordinary trust with Basilio, his family, and all of the men of this proud but doomed mining community.
But before I scare you away - there's no hand wringing in this doc. No preaching. No overarching message of globalization or child exploitation. In fact - as we learn - this has been going on for hundreds of years, this search for minerals in the "mountain that eats men."
Basilio is determined to change his fate, to get an education (at a school that seems to put up significant barriers - including uniforms, shoes, haircuts, and a strict almost military like precision). But Basilio stays in school. Works in the mines. Pays for his families food. And deals with the imposition of a film crew for weeks (at least). All with a confidence and charm that makes it easy to see him living happily ever after. Only in the final title card - "800 children work in mines of Cerro Rico" - do you remember that he's not an anomaly - and his unique character makes him likely to be a lone survivor, not a picture of child labor in Bolivia.
Sitting in the dark - on a Saturday Morning - with my 15 year old son, I had no idea that staring back at me would be his 14 year old counterpart, a world away. Basilio Vargas is not the kind of child you expect to be the hero of a film about child labor. He appears neither abused nor the victim, his existence is a reality. His ability be both a child and an adult is both engaging and depressing. The seriousness of his commitment to his 'studies' had my son looking inward.
And most of all - I'll never take silver for granted again.
Upcoming screenings at Arclight Hollywood, AFI Film Festival, Latin Cinema Series:
Friday November 11, 10pm
Sunday November 13, 5:30pm