“Landfill Harmonic” reuses, recycles, redefines what an orchestra can be

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After playing at over 140 festivals, the award-winning documentary Landfill Harmonic is finally having a big screen debut in New York City. Co-directed by Brad Allgood and Juliana Penaranda-Lofus, the film follows the journey of one very unlikely children’s orchestra from the slums of Paraguay to arenas all across the world. Why so unlikely? Each instrument in the orchestra is made from garbage.

Cateura, a small, impoverished town in Paraguay, is not only situated on the oft-flooded Paraguay River, but on the country’s largest landfill. It’s a bleak place to live–many of the town’s residents are gancheros, people who make their living sifting through garbage, finding recyclables to sell. Their kids grow up to do the same. A large percentage of the population is illiterate, and drug use runs rampant. When orchestra director Favio Chavez initially came to Cateura, it was as an environmental engineer. However, when he noticed that Cateura’s youth entertained themselves by exploring piles of garbage, he decided to start offering free music lessons as a way to keep them off the streets, and out of the trash heaps. He likely had no idea that, eventually, he’d end up with an orchestra of over 35 kids who’d go on to perform sold-out concerts all over the world.

Chavez’s orchestra started with some donated instruments–a few violins, a set of drums. As interest grew, one Cateura citizen, Colá had the idea of fashioning instruments out of materials found from the landfill. Violins were created, seemingly out of thin air, from metal cans and bent forks. Xrays serve as drumheads. A particularly ingenious cello was fashioned from an oil can, wooden cooking spoons, a water spigot, and a high heel from a woman’s shoe. Thanks to Colá’s dedication, these instruments were tweaked until Chavez was able to achieve the sound he wanted. Watching this process captured on film is nothing short of extraordinary, particularly as the sounds of the orchestra grew more confident, and more beautiful.

Landfill Harmonic does an excellent job of lifting the veil from a secluded town that audiences are not likely to be familiar with. Gently, and without any frills, we’re given access to nearly every walk of life in Cateura–swing sets made from landfill rubber bands, ramshackle homes, the complicated family troubles of some of the orchestra members, the looming threat of a flood. But the filmmakers filter in the heart of Cateura too, the things that aren’t so easily seen at first glance. We experience the eagerness of the community to provide their children with better lives. We see lasting friendships formed between the young women in the orchestra (not to mention the first time one of them lays eyes on the ocean). The undeniable thread woven throughout the film is that even if you come from nothing, it doesn’t mean that you can’t reach with all your might for something more, feels fresh and sincere in this context. Particularly during the month of September, when it feels like everything could be a new beginning, Landfill Harmonic is an inspiration to watch, not only to remind you to be thankful for what you have, but to think about all that you could do with it.

Landfill Harmonic opens at Cinema Village on September 9.