Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani's documentary The Devil's Miner is so polished that it might pass for a scripted narrative feature, but that's not a bad thing. They found a remarkable spokesman in Bolivian teenager Basilio Vargas, and while his cogent, organized descriptions of his life, beliefs, history, and ambitions sometimes seem too calculated, at least they're calculated to communicate efficiently and appealingly.
At 14, Vargas is the man of his house. His father died when he was 2, and Vargas entered the mines of Bolivia's Cerro Rico mountain when he was 10, working to support his siblings and mother. The work is dangerous, dirty, and often unprofitable—the mines have been active for more than four centuries, and are all but played out. Vargas and those like him work with primitive tools in hazardous conditions for low wages, and those who don't die from mine accidents generally succumb to silicosis by 40. Given the hostile conditions, it's little wonder that Vargas' community leans heavily on superstition and hope—in this case, via a peculiar set of beliefs that acknowledge God and the Catholic Church aboveground, but hold that Satan rules below in "the mountain that eats men." Every mine has its own effigy of the devil, known as "Tio," or "uncle," and the sacrifices to Tio come both in the form of daily gifts of coca leaves and alcohol, and as a matter of annual community ritual, involving animal sacrifice to sate the devil's desire for blood.
Vargas discusses Tio's gory, vengeful works as matter-of-factly as he discusses his own desire to better himself through school, or his frank enjoyment of the annual festivals to satiate the devil. His maturity and calm assessment of his situation is much of what makes The Devil's Miner so compelling. The film can be achingly repetitive—Vargas, his brother, and their co-workers all live simple lives focused around their work, their religion, and their grim but philosophical understanding that they're shortening their lives every time they re-enter the mines. In interviews, they all repeat pretty much the same few comments. But Davidson and Ladkani compensate with surprisingly pretty and dramatic footage, and with a short, tight community portrait that doesn't overextend itself ideologically. It's a small, frank window on a unique world—no more, no less, and no need for anything else.