Unflinching takes on difficult themes

26th August 2005 at 01:00
There is more fact than fiction in some of the films on youth at the Edinburgh Festival, but imagination has free rein among the children's authors and book illustrators. Mitchell Miller and (below) Karen Shead report.

In a statement that is sure to inspire incredulity in any class of S3s, 14-year-old Basilio says: "When I go to school it is like a vacation." But then most Scottish teenagers do not spend their after-school time crawling through the silver mines of Bolivia.

The Devil's Miner, a film by Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson, was shot over five years in the city of Potosi, where at least 800 children work in the mines of Cerro Rico. It is the story of a child's survival and illuminates the dark world within "the mountain that eats men".

The adult miners look 60 but seldom reach their 40s. With blank stares and mouths stuffed with the coca leaves that sustain them over long shifts, men and boys risk death for the hope of striking a vein of silver. Basilio's boss is already a dead man; he has swallowed so much mineral dust he has developed silicosis.

"Outside we believe in God," he explains, "but when we enter the mines things change. We enter the realm of Satan."

Each mine has its Tio, a statue of Satan to which the miners offer coca leaves and, occasionally, a freshly killed llama. With their fatalistic belief in the Tio, existing alongside their devout Catholicism, the miners seem cruelly suspended between heaven and hell.

The local priest says: "When I look into their faces I see Jesus dying again."

The sacrifice of youth, for causes material or spiritual, is a theme of this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival.

The Three Rooms of Melancholia, directed by Pirjo Honkasalo, is as imposing and austere as the cloisters of the Russian military orphanage where it opens. Here, boys are taught to salute, march in time and ultimately, kill.

These boys, with an average age of 12, are the cast-offs of Russian society; their military training is an extreme antidote to their troubled origins. Almost all will ultimately serve in Chechnya, whose capital, Grozny, is the subject of part two, and the images answer anyone who might wonder what being bombed back to the Stone Age means.

Then there are teenagers Aslan and Adam, victims of atrocities meted out by grown-up versions of the orphanage cadets, who find solace in the chilling refrains of Chechen battle hymns.

Honkasalo's film has been rightly acknowledged as a masterpiece, an unforgettable confrontation with the unimaginable. But honourable documentary mentions must also go to Gunner Palace, a remarkably balanced, beautifully judged film following the fortunes of soldiers in postwar Baghdad; The Boys from Baraka, a sad, tragic tale of missed opportunities and systemic failures, which is likely to excite as much debate in the staffroom as in class; and KeepinTime, where young African-American hip-hop musicians meet their forebears.

Both KeepinTime and The Devil's Miner formed part of Certified, a strand of youth programming that yields a fruitful crop of potential school trips.

Introduced by children from Skamm (Scottish Kids are Making Movies), the Swedish feature Fourteen Sucks is a tough, honest and unflinching take on the coming-of-age movie, part of a trend in Scandinavian cinema (such as Noi Albinoi and Together) that contrasts the tensions existing in isolated communities with the pain and loneliness of growing up.

Tsotsi (meaning thug), from the South African filmmaker Gavin Hood, bears a superficial resemblance to City of God, with its predatory, murderous child anti-heroes, but its young protagonist (Presley Chweneyagae) is a far more challenging figure. Transposed to Glasgow, he would be a chav, a ned, a figure of fun or derision; but here we understand that circumstances have made him a predator and that his redemption is only partly in his hands.

All in all, the festival presents a challenging set of films on difficult themes set to test the preconceptions of teachers and pupils.

Incidentally, neither Chweneyagae, nor Fourteen Sucks's Elin Ahlberg earned half of Dakota Fanning's take for a single scene of War of the Worlds.

Small change for Hollywood; a lifetime's earnings for Basilio.

The Devil's Miner will be on limited release in the UK this autumn.

The Three Rooms of Melancholia will be on release later this yearwww.edfilmfest.org.uk

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