The Village Voice‘s Michael Atkinson explained last year how “documentaries, like spinach, are supposed to be good for you and healthy for the body politic.” This is why non-fiction films typically don’t appeal to the average moviegoer—because they’re reminiscent of wasted childhood hours spent at a kitchen table, a spatula-wielding mother standing by the sink screaming, “Eat your vegetables!” The rare success of films like March of the Penguins and Fahrenheit 9/11 is easily explained: One approaches us with the sneakiness and love of a parent guiding a plane filled with peas and carrots into our mouths, and the other is covered with so much dressing (a little bit of ketchup and a whole lot of cheese) that it doesn’t even taste like a documentary anymore. Grownups like to eat their vegetables, or at least pretend they do—it makes them feel smart, even if they’d rather be eating a juicy piece of steak. This explains why critics can be more forgiving of a not-so-good work of non-fiction than he or she is of a not-so-good Hollywood film: a documentary can look and taste bad as long as it teaches us a lesson. It’ll be interesting, then, to see what they have to say about Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani’s The Devil’s Miner, a work of noble intentions that’s aesthetically slight and low in contextual carbs and righteous indignation.
Potosi, Bolivia is the highest city in the world. Inside the tunnels of the cone-shaped Cerro Rico mountain range, two young brothers work day-in and day-out excavating silver, staying awake by eating coca leaves (basis for cocaine, not hot chocolate). They work in order to care for their mother and to afford the trips to school that feel like vacations from their daily toil, which comes with the risk of acquiring silicosis: long-term scarring of the lungs due to inhalation of silica dust, which can cut a person’s life expectancy in half. Davidson and Ladkani are poor excavators, but to their credit, they don’t exploit their subjects or misrepresent their lives (they recognize that Basilio and Bernardino’s gruelling day-to-day existence has its joys, none greater than the horror films that come in on their battery-powered television set), but there are rituals here—like the spectacle of miners worhipping God in the outside world and the devil Tio inside the tunnels of Cerro Rico—that are denied a historical context. It’s a sad story for sure, but the filmmakers make the mistake of taking the rich, difficult past of their subjects for granted.
Surely it can’t be a good thing when a film’s press notes tell a better, more evocative story than the film itself—in this case a horrible tale of Spanish conquistadors enslaving natives, forcing them to mine silver, and killing millions of them over the course of four centuries. The Spanish may no longer rule over the people and commerce of the region, but the slave work is still in effect. This struggle suggests a form of insitutionalized slavery that isn’t probed by the filmmakers; unlike its two subjects, the film walks on eggshells, not knowing how to dig very deep, and the result is an aloof piece of filmmaking, sensitive but neither rich nor complex.