Thursday, June 10, 2010

Trash Matters: "Cartoneros"

Due to the craziness of post-Spring madness, the follow-up article on marketing Latino made or themed films is still a work in progress…however, I am reprinting an interview I conducted with filmmaker Ernesto Livon-Grosman to talk about his documentary Cartoneros.  With the current Gulf of Mexico crisis, now is a good time to bring up this film. For complete info on the filmmaker and docu, please visit, The Hummingbird Review,
Ernesto Livon-Grosman’s Cartoneros respects the dignity of Argentina’s middle-class citizens who have been thrust into a life of survival when the economy collapsed in 2001—but survival isn’t all this movie is about.

By Elia Esparza
Boston College professor Ernesto Livon-Grosman found the sight of people pushing carts packed with trash destined for old train cars in his native Buenos Aires so powerful that it became the subject of his first film, Cartoneros (2006).  In doing so, he helped make public the situation of the cartoneros, who had remained unnoticed by the citizens of Buenos Aires. The word cartoneros refers to the city’s trash scavengers.  What many people didn’t realize was that, by scavenging, the cartoneros were providing an important ecological service: recycling trash and thus reducing the amount of trash that went into landfills by 25 percent.
By and large, these so-called “scavengers” were not homeless beggars or street urchins: they were productive, hardworking people that, due to Argentina’s economic collapse in 2001, resorted to trash recycling to earn money. Unable to wait until the bleak economy began to turn around, the cartoneros found a way to generate an income through honest work by establishing recycling cooperatives.
No one seemed to care much about who, precisely, was responsible for trash removal and disposal before the economic crisis, but when the cartoneros became visible leaders of an informal recycling industry, they were criticized for interfering with the city’s official waste collectors.  This struggle over the rights to the city’s trash ignited fierce debate throughout Buenos Aires.
Cartoneros has excellent production values in terms of cinematography, editing, sounds and music—components that many times are lost in first-time documentary films. The injection of 1940’s news archival clips at the beginning of the film offers an interesting look at Buenos Aires before the economic upheaval of 2001.  The footage reminds us of a time when films featured a preview of world news and when filmmaking was more about the story and not box-office projections. The director also broke tradition by having famed actor and singer, Cristina Banegas, narrate the film. One almost wonders whether this female narrator is, in fact, Livon-Grosman’s alter ego.
“Indeed,” said Ernesto Livon-Grosman, Cartoneros director. “I made a conscious decision to use a female voice-over; it is customary to have a male narrator because they are considered the authoritative voiceover. I wanted to have a voice that would be reflective and more intimate, and didn’t necessarily tell the audience how things are supposed to be.”
Cartoneros presents the complexity the social issues surrounding trash—its value and political and cultural implications.  In the end, the film leaves the audience asking numerous questions.  How do people respond when their economic security is pulled out from under them? How do people in an economic crisis salvage their dignity while trying to survive?
We are also given insight into the political arena in which city officials were under political pressure to regulate the activities of the cartoneros. These debates and negotiations took place at meetings between cartoneros and government officials, as featured in the film. It was at one of these meetings that Director Livon-Grosman met some of the anthropologists who were there on the city’s behalf. 
“Once I met the anthropologists, I realized how complex the issue of cartoneros was and that it was so much more than just about picking through trash bins,” said Livon-Grosman. "In keeping with Jørgen Leth, I assume that I know nothing but I would like to know something. Curiosity is an engine. Searching, fascination, framing. Discovering, seeking to understand. Not knowing in advance, not proving, not illustrating, certainly not arguing, but showing."
Cartoneros seeps deep into the predicament of the film’s protagonists:  the people suddenly left to survive by their own wits and the sanitation industry affected by their actions. In Cartoneros the female narrator is a fictional character who returns to Argentina after many years of being abroad in order to rediscover the city where she was born. She introduces us to the film’s main cartonero, a well-groomed attractive woman called La Colo. The film focuses on La Colo, and, in her articulate and her dignified way, she takes us her through her daily life and the decisions that she must make to secure a better existence for herself.
In a conversation with the filmmaker, we were able to ask more about the cartoneros of Buenos Aires.
Q:  What makes the cartoneros unique?
A:  There are many ways of looking at this. For many years the landfill industry offered many jobs and they were not stigmatized in society or politics. The job became stigmatized when entire families got involved. Thousands of people on the streets picking through trash bins suddenly became a very complicated phenomenon.

Q:  They say that poverty is the mother of invention; it is amazing how this group of people, who were once employed and thriving middle-class citizens, abruptly found themselves trying to figure out how to support their families.  The fact that they discovered a form of labor directly related to the global ecological crisis is simply amazing. How did you get inside their lives on such an intimate level?
A:  The film is not just one more way of showing poverty but instead depicts one more way to be independent and still be able to make a living. This is how I got inside to the co-ops in order to film the effect and benefits from organized labor and to present reasonable practical alternatives to help improve the people who are cartoneros. Sure there is the shock factor of extreme poverty and showing the cartoneros struggle elicits our sympathy. But in addition to this, I wanted to show something positive.  I wanted viewers to see how their actions were a means of improving their economic situation, as well as doing something useful for the environment.  In Argentine society, they had not been seen in quite that way before.

Q: What surprised you the most while making this film?
A:  The fact that I started the film with one idea and ended up with another. At first, I held a much more narrow view of social issues. As the film went on, I realized that these people  looking for a way out of their economic situation had mobilized ecological awareness in a way that was both practical and meaningful. They became much more informed about ecology and benefits of recycling—something that the middle-class in general had not paid much attention to in the past.  As this discovery grew in scope, the cartoneros realized that what they were doing not just another reason to make money but a way of positively affecting the ecological crisis. The evolution of the film cartoneros was created by many circumstances coming together at the same time, and I took away many valuable lessons from making this film.  I hadn’t sufficiently recognized the importance of ecology in what the cartoneros were doing.  My focus was on the economic crisis, but out of this catastrophe an ecological awareness evolved, and I, along with many Argentine citizens became aware of the importance of ecology and the need for regulation and reform. 

Q: How important to you think the experiences, background, and education of the cartoneros influenced their ability to act effectively.
A: No doubt their former position in society as educated individuals came in handy. They had the tools to think carefully and thoroughly about what it was they were doing. This also allowed them to look at the issues in a much broader sense. And, more importantly, their union experience helped them to organize and act effectively.

Q: Did you ever have a private screening for cartoneros or people featured in the film?
A:  I would have loved to screen it only to them but it was never possible—hard to get them all together—La Colo didn’t want to be seen in public. I assume that she felt she had moved on and didn’t want the spotlight on her even though she is a main thread of the film. After the film was completed, she went on to work as a telephone operator. La Colo, who holds a Masters in literature and philosophy, and was the owner of a freight-shipping company prior to becoming a successful cartonero, is now a private tutor to high school students. She no longer rummages through the trash to survive.

Q: What do you hope audiences will take away after viewing Cartoneros?
A: Argentine society, like the U.S., is undergoing an economic crisis, and so it is important to provoke awareness and start making connections between labor, the market, and the environment. We also have cartoneros here in the U.S., and I hope that the next time we see someone rummaging through the trash that we don’t dismiss what they are doing as somehow irrelevant to our own lives.

Cartoneros is a thought-provoking documentary that brings honor to hardworking people by depicting the resourceful and creative measures taken to create work and protect the environment.  The film seeks to raise awareness and stimulate dialogue.
Now that we have been introduced to the life of a cartonero, perhaps the next installment will focus on the future of the movement and trace the impact that these recyclers have had on environmental policy.
Ernesto Livon-Grosman’s Cartoneros is as thought provoking as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.
Reprinted with permission from The Hummingbird Review,