City Paper at SXSW: 'Landfill Harmonic' offers the irresistible story of children learning music on instruments made from garbage

Hundreds of documentary films are released each year and only a few are ever screened in a theater—and fewer still are ever shown for more than a few days. "Landfill Harmonic" has a good chance to be one of that small handful, for it combines good filmmaking with an irresistible story.

The story is this: Paraguay's capital Asuncion has two million inhabitants, and most of their garbage goes to the Cateura landfill seven miles south of town. Living on the edge of the dump are 2,500 families who make their living by picking through the trash for usable items. When Flavio Chavez volunteered to teach music in that neighborhood, he was soon confronted by more eager students than he had secondhand instruments to give them.

No problem, said Cola, one of the shantytown's elders. We know how to make things out of garbage. In these astonishing opening scenes, we see Cola fashioning violins out of large cans, pallet slats, and forks, cellos from oil drums and wooden spoons, and drums from X-ray photos and wooden cylinders. And our own sense of wonder is reflected in Chavez's face when he picks up one of Cola's creations and is able to tune it up and play a melody on it.

Soon five junior-high-school girls are sitting in the local school with metal-can violins tucked under their chins as Chavez teaches them the rudiments of music while strumming his own tin-can guitar. The girls aren't very good at first, but Chavez refuses to let them get discouraged. Soon co-directors Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley are sending the cameras into the girls' homes, thrown-together constructions of cinderblock, plywood, and corrugated metal.

The kids have the same problems of poor youth anywhere: missing fathers, undereducated mothers, garbage-strewn streets, no privacy, and no money. But the music gives them something to hang on to. Because the film was shot over five years, you can hear these fledgling musicians gradually, but never implausibly, getting better.

The most charismatic person on the screen in the 13-year-old violinist Ada Rios, whose lovely oval face reflects an ongoing battle between optimism and wariness. It's a battle reinforced by the movie's plot, which delivers both unlikely triumph and all-too-likely disaster. The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura eventually travels to play concerts in Brazil, the U.S., Canada, and Europe, but that can't protect their hometown from devastating reversals.

Ada's father had fished cassette tapes out of the dump, and father and daughter both developed an enthusiasm for hard rock. Thus the orchestra expands its repertoire from Beethoven and Bach to include Metallica and Megadeath. And this leads to one of the most dramatic moments in the movie.

When the film was screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival Friday afternoon, Rios, Chavez, and four more young musicians from Cateura were on hand to answer questions. The six musicians even played two songs on their hammered, tin-can instruments: Pachelbel's Canon in D and Metallica's 'Nothing Else Matters.' They both sounded terrific.

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