Society for the Anthropology of Work




Bolivian Miners and “Reality Tourism,” A Film Review


Charlotta Copcutt, Anna Weitz and Anna Klara Åhrén. Can’t Do it In Europe. 46 minutes. English and Spanish. Video/DVD. First Run/Icarus Films, 2005. 


            This month’s column is dedicated to the review of Can’t Do it In Europe, a recent documentary film that will be of interest to anthropologists studying work and the local-global dimensions of inequality.  In the opening scene a dust-covered sledge hammer drives a chisel into the rock wall of a Bolivian silver mine.  There’s a rhythmic clang of metal on metal.   The scene shifts to an internet cafe in the city of Potosi’s central tourist district.  Two men with British accents speak excitedly about their upcoming tour of the mines.  It has been advertised as the “best adventure in the Cerro Rico.”

Potosi was founded in 1548 as a Spanish colonial mining town. At an altitude of 3,967 meters, it claims to be the highest city in the world.  Extractions of tin, copper and silver have been diminished for the past two centuries, but silver is still mined today.  The local government sees the tourist industry as its best hope for economic development.  Already, Potosi receives 50,000 visitors each year.  What brings these European and American adventurers to this impoverished Bolivian mountain town?  Those interviewed in this film say they have been lulled by The Lonely Planet guide’s promise of “an opportunity to witness working conditions that should have gone out with the Middle Ages.”

            Charlotta Copcutt, Anna Weitz and Anna Klara Åhrén, three young documentary film school graduates from Sweden, follow a group of twenty-nine tourists on their excursion into the still-functioning silver mines.  After paying a $10 tour fee, the visitors receive overalls, a hard hat, and boots and are taken to a kiosk where they are encouraged to buy gifts for the miners (coco leaves, soft drinks, alcohol, and dynamite sticks).  When asked what they expect to see during the tour, one man replies:  “I expect to see a health and safety work nightmare.”  “Maybe they’ll be proud to show their working skills,” a woman reflects.  “I hope so.  I don’t want it to feel like we’re gawking at them, and they’re monkeys in the zoo, or something like that.” 

            The bi-lingual tour guide is interviewed at home with his family.  His father worked in the mines for thirty years and he has also done this work himself, he explains.  The guide knows that some people think he’s exploiting the miners, but insists that for him this is a way to educate the world about the life of his people.  Back in the mining shaft, under the light of hard hat lamps, the tourists learn how to chew coco leaves to help stave off the effects of dust inhalation.  The guide tells them about Pachamama (Mother Earth), and Tío Lucas, the devil who owns the silver.  In the next scene a miner explains: “Some tourists want to join in the work, but they can’t. Because they aren’t used to working like this.  They’re used to enjoying themselves on excursions.” Throughout the day, the miners make sarcastic jokes about the “gringitos.”

            The film also features an interview with Potosi’s Director of Development, who believes that - in order to attract visitors - the work conditions must never be modernized.  In fact, he’d like to see the miners wearing leather again, as they did during the colonial era.  I am reminded of Richard Lee’s portrayal of a Kalahari wildlife reserve’s attempt to force the Ju/’hoansi back into their old leather aprons, also for the amusement of tourists. 

            When the group emerges from the mines, people look tired but exhilarated. “It helps us to feel more satisfied with our own lives,” says one woman about what she’s seen.  “Filthy, hot, but exciting,” comments an older man.  “I’d do it again tomorrow.  I mean, the people down there are real people, aren’t they… You certainly couldn’t do that in Europe, could you?”  To cap off the experience, the tourists are allowed to blow up a few dynamite sticks.  They jump up and down, and laugh.  With a running time of 46 minutes, this film is short enough for a classroom showing, and it would make a strong complement to June Nash’s classic ethnography, We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us.



Send contribution ideas for the SAW column to Angela Jancius,