In a town built on top of a landfill, a group of children play instruments made out of trash. They’ve taken their recycled orchestra on tour playing Mozart in plush theaters on tin-can cellos and cardboard violins.
Landfill Harmonic is the name of a documentary film about the Orquesta de instrumentos reciclados, the Recycled Orchestra. Members range in age from twelve to eighteen, they come from Cateura, a slum located along the river a few miles outside of Asuncion, Paraguay. Paraguay is a small country with a proud past and recent political drama. Like many developing countries it is littered in slums, or informal cities.
The story of the teenage junkyard chamber orchestra is a bright spot in a grimy reality where law enforcement and sanitation leave neighborhoods to fend for themselves. Like in Slumdog Millionaire or City of God, kids grow up in hoods that are beyond hood; they literally grow up in trash. Harvard University researchers have looked at slums across Latin America from an urban planning perspective in a project called Dirty Work. According to findings, squatter settlements, or nonformal cities, are on the rise and make up one third of the urban population worldwide.
The instruments in Cateura were built by Favio Chávez, an ecological technician and musician employed at the landfill. “One day it occurred to me to teach music to the children of the recyclers and use my personal instruments,” he says in the film. “But it got to the point that there were too many students and not enough supply. So that’s when I decided to experiment and try to actually create a few.”
After a couple of years in the junkyard orchestra, members have gone on to play with professional orchestras in the capital city Asuncion.
The film trailer ends with a quote from the band leader. “People are realizing that we shouldn’t throw trash away carelessly. And we don’t need to throw people away so easily either.”