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Can’t Do It In Europe

by Charlotta Copcutt, Anna Weitz and Anna Klara Åhrén
First Run/Icarus Films, Brooklyn NY, 2005
DVD, 46 mins, colour
Sales, $348.00
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Kathryn Adams


"A visit to the cooperative mines will almost surely be the most memorable experience you'll have in Bolivia, providing an opportunity to witness working conditions that should have gone out with the Middle Ages."–Lonely Planet.

Travelers listen up. If you’ve explored all the usual tourist haunts, seen enough rolling green hills, castles, cathedrals and historical sites to last a lifetime and become weary of commonplace cafes, galleries and fresh mountain air maybe you are in need of a hefty dose of ‘Reality Tourism’ – the new travel phenomenon that offers you the chance to experience ‘unpleasant realities’ in areas of the world which are politically unstable or economically disadvantaged. What better place to hit reality head on than the Potosi silver mines in Bolivia? So put away your spoon collections and grab a helmet because we’re going down.

The Cerro Ricco (rich mountain) looms over the city of Potosi, one of the poorest cities in Latin America, and houses the silver mines that were largely responsible for the wealth and power the Spaniards gained over 400 years ago. Millions of miners lost their lives during this period due to extremely harsh working conditions and faced the dangers of inhaling toxic fumes, mine collapse, and being run over by mine carts on a daily basis. Amazingly, nearly five centuries later, conditions have not improved much.

Today’s Bolivian miners still work by hand in stifling underground temperatures with little or no ventilation and are constantly breathing in harmful substances including silica dust, arsenic gas, acetylene vapors and asbestos fibers. While toiling in these appalling conditions, the miners drink 99.6% alcohol and pack their cheeks with coca leaves that they chew to help relieve pain and ward off hunger and exhaustion. A miner’s life expectancy is around 45 to 50 years if they manage to dodge the mine carts that roar through the constricted spaces of this underground hell-hole that they believe is controlled by the devil.

And here’s where you come in. For $US10, the friendly folk at Koala Tours can arrange for you to experience all of this by taking you on a guided tour of one of these small cooperatives where you can see the workers in action as you squeeze your way through muddy tunnels thick with noxious air.

Charlotta Copcutt, Anna Weitz and Anna Klara Åhrén’s documentary, Can’t Do It In Europe follows a group of intrepid international tourists on one such tour. After the bus trip from Potosi to the mines the group’s Bolivian tour guide, a former miner himself, supplies the tourists with overalls, gloves, boots and helmets (no dust masks) and recommends they buy gifts for the miners, such as soft drinks, dynamite, or coca leaves. Interviews with the group before and after the tour reveal differing opinions about the experience. One tour member said he expected to see, "a health and safety work nightmare." Some felt a certain cultural awkwardness about observing such hardship and came out appreciating their own lives much more while others were clearly looking forward to setting off their obligatory stick of dynamite at the end of the tour.

The film explores its topic from all angles by including interviews with the tour guide around his home in Potosi, the miners, who wonder "God knows why they come to see us" and the Director of Development who says the miner’s working conditions should not be improved and believes that having the miners work under "more authentic" conditions would further enhance the tourist encounter.

This engaging film by these three young Swedish film graduates is well paced and absorbing. It combines the issue of the exploitation of human labour with the lighter aspects of tourism with ease. The film could have benefited from audio improvements but doesn’t suffer because of it. At 46 minutes running time this is also an excellent teaching resource that will provoke classroom discussions on imperialism, post-colonialism, globalisation and the complex issue of tourism in the developing world. It raises these issues without passing judgement, and is all the more powerful and engaging for it.

So, how keen are you? The Lonely Planet does include a ‘Mine Tour Warning’ alerting tourists to the risks involved in taking this tour but states "if you’re undeterred, you’ll have an eye-opening and unforgettable experience." Best of luck with that, this is one gringo that is opting to stay above ground.



Updated 1st September 2007

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