On August 5, 2010, a cave-in at the troubled San José copper and gold mine, located in the harsh, remote Atacama Desert of northern Chile, entombed 33 men 200 storeys underground. It was feared that the men had died in the cave-in, or that they would succumb to starvation long before any rescuers would reach them.

But 17 days after the accident, on August 22, a drill broke through the rock to where it was believed the miners had taken refuge, and the rescuers heard someone tapping. Through that 16-centimetre hole, the miners were given food, medicine and other supplies, including a Bible, as drillers tried to create an escape shaft. In turn, the miners sent a note written in bold red letters, taped to the drill bit. It read simply, “Est amos bien en el refugio, los 33.” (“We are well in the shelter, the 33 of us.”)

The message galvanized the rescuers, who redoubled their efforts, and gave hope to the waiting families. Chile and the rest of the world watched transfixed as the government devoted all of the resources at their disposal to rescuing the miners. Three international drilling teams were flown in, NASA was tapped for their expertise and more than a dozen multinational corporations assisted in the effort.

After 69 long and suspenseful days, all 33 men were successfully brought to the surface on October 13 by a winching operation that lasted nearly 24 hours. “Misión cumplida, Chile” (“Mission accomplished, Chile”) was flashed to a waiting world audience estimated at more than one billion people.

Two Struggles
The cave-in, ordeal and rescue is the subject of a new movie opening in theatres this month. The 33, starring Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, James Brolin and Lou Diamond Phillips was filmed on location in Chile and Colombia, and directed by Patricia Riggen.

“The interiors were filmed in a real mine over 35 days,” says the director. “Six days a week for 35 days, we donned hard hats and boots and spent up to 16 hours a day deep below ground. There's no day or night inside a mine, so we relived in a small way what the miners had to go through.”

The exterior scenes were shot very close to the actual mine. “It was almost like shooting two different films,” Patricia goes on to say. “It was a different country, a different crew and the environment was completely different. Blowing sand, a strong sun, not a single living creature.

“In the film, the miners are scared,” explains Patricia. “They have no food, they're struggling to keep it together in the face of certain death. Outside, the families are fighting, too—fighting with their government to continue the rescue and to not let them forget about the 33 men in the mine.”

Moving Mountains

The Salvation Army - Salvationist.ca - The 33: Trapped Underground! As tensions mount, Mario needs all of his faith to calm his fellow miners (Photo: Beatrice Aguirre/Courtesy Warner Bros.)

While the ingenious and elaborate rescue efforts attracted the world's attention, the operation's success also hinged on the miners themselves and the Christian faith that helped them endure.

The first thing Patricia did when she became involved in the project was to travel to Chile to meet the 33 miners and their families. She developed the script with these conversations in mind. During the shoot, the miners themselves were heavily involved and their expertise did much to give the film authenticity.

“Originally, The 33 was not conceived as a faith-based movie,” says Patricia, “but from the very beginning, I understood that one of the main things that kept the miners alive was their faith. It was something they shared with me and it was something I knew I had to communicate through the movie: how faith kept them together and kept them believing they would make it out. It was faith that kept the miners alive and this was not made up to sell tickets. It was absolutely true.”

José Henriquez, one of the trapped miners, led a prayer group, and the movie shows many instances where the miners are in prayer. The miners' faith was echoed above ground, as churches across Chile and around the world maintained prayer vigils throughout the rescue.

“There are actually 34 of us because God has never left us down here,” miner Jimmy Sanchez said after he was pulled out from the specially constructed Phoenix escape capsules.

And at the end of the rescue, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera thanked the families of the miners “who maintained faith—this faith that ended up moving mountains.”

“God Won”
As a person of faith herself, Patricia's faith in God was reaffirmed while the movie was being shot.

“The fact that I am a believer helps me create movies such as The 33,” the Mexican-born director says. “I have a deep belief and I come from a culture that deeply believes in miracles and in the power of God, the power of love and the power of faith. So the movie has both symbolic and overt scenes where faith is on display. It could not be otherwise.”

This past summer, Patricia returned to the miners' hometown of Copiapó to screen the movie for them before the general release. “It was a beautiful experience, to be able to return to them,” she says. “The experience marked them for life, and it's still very alive in their beings.”

The miners and their families were quiet as the movie played. “The energy in the room was intense.” At the end, they all crowded around her, hugged her and thanked her. “It was a sign for me,” she says, “that they felt good about it.”

As rescued miner Mario Sepúlveda said when he reached the surface, “I've been near God, but I've also been near the devil. God won.”

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