VIFF Film Review: Landfill Harmonic

Photo: Vancouver International Film Festival.

Photo: Vancouver International Film Festival.

When a documentary can reveal an authentic story about the undeniable need for environmental action without having to inject the term ‘environmentalism’ bluntly into the script, it is likely telling a story worth hearing.  Landfill Harmonic proves that a violin or drum set assembled completely from re-purposing garbage – literal garbage – can produce sounds just as good as a shiny new instrument.  Good enough, in fact, to make it on stage with some of the biggest rock bands of our time.

Landfill Harmonic follows an inspiring (and slightly improvising) musical director, Favio, and his students on an emotional journey originating in Cateura, a Paraguayan slum located next to the region’s major economic highlight – a landfill.  Cateura may be a place where a new violin is worth more than a house, but it is also a place where the gift of music is priceless.

Inside a small, cramped classroom, you’ll find it to be one of the few places where metal forks, old x-rays, empty oil cans, and the heel of a woman’s shoe are merged together to create what is quite literally perfect harmony.  In a landfill, these things may all be considered useless trash, but when combined with acoustics and physics, and manipulated with strings and bows, they produce the sounds of a life forever changed.  Perspective is everything. 

The musicians and instrument crafters of Cateura bring new meaning to the 3 R’s.  Local residents, including Cola, a garbage picker, find inspiration from the ‘trash’ they come across working in the landfill – everything from cassette tapes, to old records, to tin cans.  In their eyes, reducing, reusing, and recycling is not an obligation; it is not something they participate in simply because it is considered ‘the right thing to do’.  When communities with the desire to learn come together to redefine the meaning of ‘garbage’, it gives hope not just for the planet’s future, but also for mankind. 

When tragedy strikes Cateura, forcing many out of their homes and destroying an instrument-building workshop, it serves as a reminder that for many in this world, there is no option to ‘just buy a new one’.  Despite the orchestra’s now international success, the people of Cateura remain immensely vulnerable to changes in economic and natural systems.  They can only access what is in front of them; moving forward relies on equal parts optimism and creativity.  When one of the youth members of the orchestra claims that her life would be meaningless without music, you know the community will do whatever it takes to make that little girl a new violin.

By the end of the film, you no longer notice the garbage-ridden streets or crumbling houses.  Rather, you hear the passion behind the music; you feel the hopeful futures of these youth.  Their lives are rich with music, and that’s what matters most.  To quote Favio, “To have nothing is not an excuse for doing nothing”.

It seems almost unbelievable to fathom the orchestra’s evolution from a crowded little room in Paraguay to performing on stage with international rock stars in front of thousands of fans.  Many of the orchestra’s youngest members, once never having dreamed of even holding an instrument, are now striving to become professional musicians – not for the fame or the money, but to teach and inspire other youth the way they were once inspired themselves when one man made a simple decision to share the gift of music.