And how to tell a great story
When I started working at a newspaper shortly after graduating from college, I learned a valuable lesson early on: When presented with a compelling story, resist the temptation to use flowery adjectives, and don’t try to overdramatize a story that is already dramatic. If someone overcomes an obstacle or rallies for an improbable victory, then the story should lead the author, not the other way around.
Chavez noticed a void of opportunities for the children of Cateura, so he decided to provide music lessons.
Simple storytelling and allowing the characters and subject matter to lead the way is the primary reason that the documentary Landfill Harmonic succeeds so well.
Currently making its rounds in the festival circuit in North America, Landfill Harmonic tracks the successes and tribulations of the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura. A suburb of Asuncion, Paraguay, Cateura is home to one of the largest landfills in South America. In addition to living adjacent to mountains of garbage, the citizens of Cateura rely on the landfill for employment. Many townspeople work for the government, sorting through the landfill for recyclables.
Favio Chavez, an environmental engineer, arrived in Cateura about a decade ago to help with a recycling project. While his work proved to be fruitless, Chavez did succeed in helping the town. Chavez noticed a void of opportunities for the children of Cateura, so he decided to provide music lessons. With instruments in short supply, Chavez enlisted the help of Nicolas, a garbage picker better known as Cola. Using oil barrels, paint cans, wooden furniture, and even X-ray film, Cola began to create violins, cellos, woodwind instruments, and drums. To the naked eye, the instruments obviously look different; they’re colorful, metallic, and take on the design of the recycled object. Most people who close their eyes and listen, however, will not hear a difference. The uniqueness of the instruments and the newfound opportunity piqued the interest of the village’s children—and their parents—and the group morphed into a small orchestra.
The filmmakers became part of the story when they posted a short video about the orchestra on YouTube. As the hits grew, so did interest in the Recycled Orchestra. News outlets started reporting stories on them, and promoters start inviting them to play at events. This led to performing in front of royalty, festivals, and, in an odd but welcome twist, sharing the stage with a couple of the world’s most famous heavy metal bands. The band’s status also provided the town with new source of pride, and becomes a focal point in the documentary. When a natural disaster threatens the town, the orchestra becomes a point of solidarity.
All throughout this drama, the filmmakers let the story lead the way. One key to not overselling the story is to omit a narrator. The directors wisely shine the light on the characters. Cola is the kind of universal hero everyone roots for. He’s unassuming, kind, and creative. Like the kids around him, he seizes his opportunity and becomes a legitimate instrument maker. The kids in the orchestra, however, shine the brightest. We see the situation they’re born into and then see how they respond to it. Music gives them some structure and an extra reason to dream.
Chavez is the impetus for this success but he is not the self-congratulating type. His facial expression stays the same after the group finds a following; regardless of the orchestra’s higher profile, his focus remains to simply teach music to the children. The filmmakers might have wanted to focus more on the kids, which makes sense, but Chavez is a compelling character as well, and though simplicity is a strong suit of the movie, the film does undersell Chavez’s story a bit.
Overall, however, the filmmakers’ approach of letting the story unfold works. By avoiding narration and focusing on characters, the movie reveals what the Recycled Orchestra and the town of Cateura are: a great story.
3.5/4 stars. Not rated, but suitable for children, unless you don’t want to expose them to the long-haired members of metal band Megadeth. Watch the trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wCjbd21fYV8.
All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.