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Minerita 2015, 2016


Distributed by Grasshopper Films, 12 East 32nd St., 4th Floor, New York, NY 10016
Produced by Amaia Remirez
Directed by Raul de la Fuente
DVD, color, 28 min., Spanish with English subtitles

Sr. High - General Adult
Bolivia, Miners, Violence, Women’s Rights

Date Entered: 01/13/2017

Reviewed by Wendy Highby, University of Northern Colorado

Extractive industries take a tremendous toll on the environment and the people they employ. Two films, Women of the Mine and Minerita, explore the human cost to workers and their communities, particularly what is exacted from the women. Their common location is Cerro Rico, a silver and tin mine in Potosi, Bolivia. Minerita, at about half the length of Women of the Mine, is almost a distilled version of the same. Both documentaries are feminist and fiercely supportive of the women they film; but they diverge in narrative approach. Women of the Mine frames its story around the nurturing and politically effective actions of three women: Lucia Armijo, Domitila Barrios de Chungara, and Francisca Gonzalez Santos. Minerita is structured differently, focusing upon courage of the individual. It features a descent to the underworld of the mine and describes the heroic fight against domestic violence in which the women (Abigail Canaviri, Ivonne Mamani, and Lucia Mijo) must engage. Both films are intense and immediate, focusing upon the basic elements of life, as their protagonists are surviving at subsistence level.

Women of the Mine begins with fire: a woman stands outside, near windswept coals, invoking “Pachamama, Earth Mother” as a weather front howls across the mountainous Potosi. Minerita also begins with fire, not flames but incendiary dynamite. Women use the explosive for dual purposes: to extract minerals from Cerro Rico, but also to fend off the sexual assaults of drunken miners. Water is an important element in each film, demonstrating negative quality of life and environmental impacts. In Women of the Mine, single mother Lucia Armijo’s house has no running water, so her children must share a wash water basin as they awaken and groom themselves in preparation for a school day. Likewise, Ivonne in Minerita fills her canteen with non-potable water, fouled by pollution from the mine.

Similarly, air quality is an issue; exposure to mine gas can be deadly. And dust becomes airborne and leads to silicosis, another fatal consequence discussed in both films. Air appears more abstractly in Women of the Mine, as a communication medium; Lucia explains that she cannot read or write, but has become an effective speaker for labor organizing purposes. She overcame her fear and now leads and defends the women mine workers. A significant portion of the film is reserved for an interview with Domitila Barrios de Chungara (accompanied by archival photos and Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano’s commentary), in which she reminisces about her activism in the 1960s and 1970s. The dangerous, untenable conditions persist some fifty years later, and the lack of progress is unexplained, though a study guide accompanying the film provides background info and a timeline.

The final and fourth element, earth, is predominant in each film, as it is shoveled, swept, pummeled and pounded. In Minerita earth is entered and becomes claustrophobic when Abigail conducts a tour of the mine. This is taboo, as women have been prohibited from going underground. In Women of the Mine Francisca explains that women are traditionally relegated to the task of combing through “strippings” (the leftover slag heap--rocks and detritus--abandoned above ground by the male miners). She bemoans the literal exhaustion of the earth, the hollowing out of the mountain, and fears it will be the end of her community. She advocates for day care and better tools for the women miners.

Each film has high-quality music and cinematography. The music of Women of the Mine underscores the feelings associated with community, unity, and collective action. This action is celebrated when Francisca exhorts the women to “value ourselves and go ahead altogether.” The cinematography of Minerita brings out the women’s inherent beauty; they wear violet and fuschia shades of clothing like petals of foreign flowers, exotic and out of place in the high-altitude, barren landscape. Both films question the viability and habitability of Potosi and suggest that women and men deserve liberation from the destructive grip of extractive mining, but each suggests a different solution. Minerita ends happily when, like Persephone freed from the underworld, Abigail cavorts on sunny salt flats, a child of the light again, for the moment carefree in a totally transformed environment. Using a more subliminal, mythological treatment, Minerita shows that a woman could lead her community out of the haunted caverns of the Cerro Rico, renouncing the superstition and enslavement to Tio Jorge (the “god” of the mine). Both films demonstrate that the “mountain that eats men” also consumes the women and children of the community. But it is Women of the Mine that points viewers toward the specific course of organizing, leadership, and political action.

The films are distinct: Minerita champions individual bravery, whereas Women of the Mine is grounded in collective political action and hearkens back to an earlier, more activist era. Women of the Mine, with its recounting of the Housewives’ Committee of Siglo XX and the hunger strike that helped end Hugo Banzer’s dictatorship, is a superior film for teaching about labor history and the political context (the legacy of European exploitation of indigenous labor). That said, Minerita does concern child labor, as Abigail and Ivonne are 17 and 16 years of age, respectively. [For a documentary focusing upon child labor at Cerro Rico, see The Devil’s Miner (2005), directed by Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani and reviewed in EMRO.] But Women of the Mine is a longer treatment, including Eduardo Galeano’s comments, and thus provides a more complete picture. Minerita is a better work for classes concerned with the issues of violence against women and sexual abuse. Both convey the occupational dangers of mining (silicosis, accidental death) equally well. They are enthusiastically recommended, especially for educators who are teaching in environmental, South American, gender, social, and labor studies.