Labor and Megalopolis: Other Films



2006, 38 mins., USA

Director: Leslie Iwerks

Producer: Mike Glad

Traditional Documentary


Topic: Garbage City


            The forty-acre ravine that comprises the Guatemala City Dump is the largest landfill operation in Central America, taking in one-third of Guatemala’s trash. It was until recently also literal home to hundreds of scavengers or guajeros (from guaje or “a thing of little value”) and workplace for hundreds more who made their living by recycling almost a million pounds of paper, plastic, and metal daily.  After skimming the arriving garbage trucks, in some cases riding the tailgates like post-apocalyptic surfers and in other cases walking alongside the trucks with one hand on their side panels to stake out a claim to their designated bounty, the guajeros earn perhaps six dollars a day from one of the 250 buyers of recyclables who arrive at the dump in the afternoons.

            Leslie Iwerks (whose father was the animator for many of Walt Disney’s successful cartoon characters) has an eye for the revealing moment in this maelstrom of activity that includes young children wandering near gigantic earth movers and teenagers sniffing glue in an already toxic atmosphere (methane gas). The dump attracts workers because of unemployment: about one third of all the peasants were forced to leave their land during the forty years of civil war and many are desperate for work.

            The film has a terrible beauty, with both soulful young children and assertive women trying to get ahead: “Out of the trash thousands of people live,” reports Gladys Molina, who kept her own baby boy in a box. Now he is seventeen and works with his mother, a generational pattern typical of many of the workers. Another young man states: “I like being here because I feel free.”

            But in the end the methane toxicity changes the routine: a major fire breaks out in January, 2005, devastating the dump and endangering everyone, especially the children. A local day care center, where attendance had been sporadic and voluntary, has been mandated by the municipality to welcome all the young children; in any case no one under fourteen is allowed to pass through the gates of the newly-regulated ravine.

            As in most of the films about shantytowns and garbage cities, the workers mostly survive by serving a necessary function for the megalopolis that depends on them—instead of municipal workers who would never be paid by bankrupt agencies—to keep the streets clean and the dumps functioning.

            A number of disturbing shots reveal huge vultures walking among the children who, in too many instances, have no adults at all in their lives. They have lost even the semblance of continuity that Christian Siliezon, the landfill’s director, says of many of the guajeros who have been at the dump for “so long they think they own the landfill.”  Official site for the film, with trailer, reviews, interviews, and other information. Founded by the late Hanley Denning, who appears in the film, the organization Safe Passage “works with the poorest at-risk children of families working in the Guatemala City garbage dump … [with the] primary focus … on creating opportunities and dignity through the power of education.”


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