Many years ago in my mid-20s I studied with a Hopi medicine woman whose first lesson to me was that—if I did not handle my own garbage—I could do nothing for the Earth. That stern primer in recycling has stayed with me all these years.
When I reviewed the Idaho International Film Festival line-up, the first film that stood out to me was Ernesto Livon-Grosman's 60-minute documentary Cartoneros, which—as the IIFF program capsule synopsizes—"follows the paper recycling process in Buenos Aires from the trash pickers who collect paper informally through middlemen in warehouses, to executives in large corporate mills. Five years ago, a severe financial crisis left Argentina reeling, putting millions out of work and into financial distress—today, in fact, more than 30 percent of the country lives below the poverty line. One particular trend borne of the economic is the increasing number of cartoneros, the poor residents of Buenos Aires and vicinity who make their living by collecting and selling recyclable paper and other materials.
"Between 25,000 and 30,000 people comb through the city's 4,500 daily tons of garbage every night, picking out paper, cardboard, metal, and glass in an effort to support themselves and their families. The scope and variety of cartoneros' enterprises so intrigued Livon-Grosman that he wound up making a documentary about it, in the process discovering the complexity of recycling and its social, political and cultural implications. The film is both a record of an economic and social crisis and an invitation to audiences to rethink the value of trash."
Ernesto Livon-Grosman was born and raised in Buenos Aires. In his early twenties, he moved to Patagonia, where he developed an interest in the history and the politics of that region. He later published Geografias imaginarias, a study about travel writers who created a mythical iconography of the Patagonian landscape, one in which the region is viewed as an uninhabited space despite the indigenous groups that have been living in the area for centuries. During the last military dictatorship, Livon-Grosman emigrated to Costa Rica. He went back to Argentina in 1983 after the return of the democratic government. He now lives in the Boston area where he teaches literature and film at Boston College.
His documentary Cartoneros begins with a quoted poem by Baudelaire:
Here we have a man who has to gather
the day’s refuse in the capital city.
Everything that the big city threw away,
everything it lost,
everything it despised,
everything it crushed underfoot,
he catalogs and collects.
The documentary then proceeds to ask a series of pointed questions that I felt were hardhitting for being so timely:
What do you do with your garbage?
What turns a person into a scavenger? Unemployment? Hunger? A desire to work independently? An interest in ecology?
What bothers you most about garbage? The smell? How hard it is to get rid of? The idea of wasting something that could be useful?
I contacted Ernesto Livon-Grosman through the film's distributor and he graciously consented to an interview.
* * *
Michael Guillén: Nancy Babine's write-up on Cartoneros for New England Film informatively provides the backstory on the making of your documentary so I won't pursue that so much; but, I did want to follow through on a few points that were of interest to me. A couple of years back I had the welcome opportunity to speak with Fernando Solanas about his documentary The Dignity of the Nobodies when it screened at the 49th San Francisco International Film Festival. Cartoneros could easily serve as compañero to Dignity of the Nobodies, especially with its focus on the urban center of Buenos Aires. Being someone who teaches about documentaries, who were your influences in shaping Cartoneros?
Ernesto Livon-Grosman: I did have influences, although the filmmakers that I like very much, people who triggered my first interest for documentary making and documentaries in general, are not necessarily visible in Cartoneros. One of them, is Fernando Birri, who was one of the founders of the New Latin American Cinema or the Third Cinema, in which Solanas was certainly a key member. Birri is the first who comes to my mind but not necessarily by any means the only one. Other directors I watched time and again, even though I wouldn't dare or even try in imitating but who are very close to my heart are people like Chris Marker and—to some extent though for different reasons—Jean Rouch. The impact of their work could be seen in the fact that Cartoneros has a clear ethnographic take.
Guillén: You utilized some structural devices that caught my attention, namely your use of split screen. What prompted you towards the split screening?
Livon-Grosman: The idea behind the split-screening was to give a picture of the process and the process was made out of many different parts. I wanted that process to be reflected in the formal structure of the film, in the attempt to put together several elements. What I did together with the editor and co-producer of the film, Angélica Allende Brisk—who was the key person in that process—was to look for a harmonic relation between content and form.
Guillén: Cristina Banegas narrates your film. Is it correct that her narrative voice is somewhat fictionalized?
Livon-Grosman: The narration was a main concern for me: how to find the option for the narrator's voice. I was very aware that one of the major issues at stake within the documentary genre is the narrator. Bill Nichols—one of the most influential critics in the field—described the voiceover as the "voice of God" and a sort of excess of authority on the part of filmmakers. Being aware of that, I was trying to get around that issue. I wanted to have a voice that would be reflective and more intimate and not necessarily telling the audience how things are. I decided to use a female voice because in the documentary tradition, there's a tendency to use a strong, deep male voice that explains it all. As an audience, you are being told exactly how things are. In Cartoneros the narrator is a fictional character that goes back to Argentina after many years of being abroad to rediscover the city where she was born. It's, if you wish, an alter-ego.
Guillén: I appreciate that idea of feminine instruction. That's probably also why La Colo came off so well in the film; she was so articulate and dignified. She worked against what Solanas would call "a culture of despair."
Livon-Grosman: There are many women doing the jobs and it would only be fair that they be properly represented. From the very beginning it was always a job that didn't have a traditional gendered division of labor. That was one factor. But there was also a serendipitous element because it was my good luck to find people like La Colo. The film always hoped to show the different stages of the recycling project as well as the dignity of the people doing this job.
Guillén: I likewise appreciate your play between the personal and the public and how—by beginning your film with a quote by Baudelaire—you incorporate a wide time margin to recognize that this reality of the cartoneros has been going on for some time in many places, long before its current inflection in Argentina.
Livon-Grosman: Thank you for noticing and making the connection. The reference to Baudelaire actually comes from a quoted poem, but it's also been used by Walter Benjamin to describe the flâneur, the person who walks through the city as a key witness and interpreter—in Benjamin's idea—of the modern city. That, perhaps, is a less obvious reference but I thought that the quote could be read without all those references and was clear in itself and if a viewer knew the references and wanted to think about it those terms, that would be possible. I liked that idea that it could be simple and complex at the same time. In that sense the flâneur is also a twofolded character that carries the fusion of the public and the private.
Guillén: Are you familiar with the Chicano aesthetic of rasquachismo written about by Tómas Ybarra-Fausto?
Guillén: Rasquachismo is a sensibility that infuses Chicano art, Haitian art, and refers to the principle of creating the most from the least, often registered as the recycling of detritus from impoverished areas to create beauty and art. Amalia Mesa-Bains has probably captured its poetry the best when she writes: "In rasquachismo, the irreverent and spontaneous are employed to make the most from the least ... one has a stance that is both defiant and inventive. Aesthetic expression comes from discards, fragments, even recycled everyday materials... The capacity to hold life together with bits of string, old coffee cans, and broken mirrors in a dazzling gesture of aesthetic bravado is at the heart of rasquachismo." I felt Cartoneros was right in line with this sensibility of rasquachismo and the tradition of salvaging and gleaning, especially in your profiles of artists Antonio Berni and Alejandro Marmo. Could you talk a little bit more about them or other sculptors who are working with recycled materials?
Livon-Grosman: Today there are several artists in Buenos Aires with similar aesthetics. But there is an important tradition that goes far back. Berni was a turning point in Argentine art history. He became an influential figure among the people who adapted and cannibalized French surrealism into Latin American art, which actually happened in many different areas, with serious attempts to distinguish themselves from the European or the French. Berni was a perfect example of that and a very successful one.
The other thing that was very touching for me—and is mentioned in the film—is that Berni was very much attached to that place where he started to collect the debris that he was including in his work—to the shanty town, or villa, known as Bajo Flores and located in a part of the city where one of the co-ops of cartoneros is now located. The co-op is located there because the shanty towns were there and the shanty towns were there because that was the location of the city dump; one of the oldest and largest ones. For me there is a sense of continuity with the past. It was important to stress that there was also a continuity between Berni's and Marmo's work.
Guillén: There's almost a sense of an architecture of archaeology, layers and strata.
Livon-Grosman: I agree with you. That's why I mentioned Rouch and the word "ethnographic" at the beginning of our conversation because that was, no doubt, the model I was working with. Ethnographic films have been in some cases deeply criticized for the way they portray the objects of their studies. I'm fascinated by that particular area of visual anthropology.
Guillén: Cartoneros has had a great festival run. I'm curious why you haven't played in San Francisco and why I had to go all the way to Boise, Idaho to see the film?
Livon-Grosman: What happened was at the beginning I didn't have a distributor. Now I do, and the distributor DER [Documentary Educational Resources] has taken over in a very efficient way. They are present in festivals all over the country and they have a strong tradition of working with ethnographic and anthropologic material. Once they took over, they started to send it out to festivals that I did not know about. At the beginning—because of lack of experience on my part—I didn't plan the exhibition of the film in a strategic way. Hopefully, San Francisco will be one of the future exhibition venues.
Guillén: I hope so because actually here in San Francisco there is a pronounced recycling community with a whole subculture of cartoneros who actually travel through neighborhoods going through the recycling bins left out on the sidewalks. Your film has prompted me to investigate what San Francisco's official policy is towards this whole subculture; if they even have one. I've never heard or read anything. So I believe there's relevance for your documentary here in San Francisco, though truthfully it's relevant in many parts of the United States. I think your documentary demonstrates that these cartoneros who we render invisible are everywhere.
Livon-Grosman: Thank you for your comments and for making a connection between the film and today's San Francisco. One of the reasons the film might be interesting for American audiences is because environmental as well as globalization issues—which in this case are connected to each other—are present in most of the developed world. It's a clear concern for everyone. In poorer countries, the issues are still visible but with different repercussions. People who have picked the film to show it in film festivals have been matching the film's themes with environmental or Latin American issues, and rightly so.
Guillén: Absolutely. And also here in the Bay Area there are ongoing art programs connected with Bay Area landfill where artists are encouraged to work with recyclable materials to create art. Specifically, I know that Sunset Scavenger—our city's garbage collection service—sponsors or coordinates SCRAP, the Scrounger's Center for Reusable Art Parts, where donations are accepted from businesses and individuals of items that can be used creatively and which are stored in a large warehouse. This also ties in to one of the themes of your documentary.
Livon-Grosman: That sounds really interesting and an unusual approach. It seems like the people there are very aware of the issue and they have devised creative alternatives for what could be perceived as just a problem.
Guillén: Exactly. Cartoneros premiered in Buenos Aires at the 2007 Sociedad Hebraica Argentina (SHA). How was it received? Has it had any beneficial effect or impact on the local culture?
Livon-Grosman: The film was well-received. It had a particularly good reception with people who were working with recycling, working with co-ops, or trying to organize them. It's been shown to activists and that's a great thing for the film. Also, it's most likely going to be shown in a conference for cartoneros that will take place in Colombia this coming March. I think they're trying to put together some films about informal recycling and Cartoneros will be one of them.
Guillén: I'm glad to hear that. Another theme that surfaced in the documentary that proved interesting to me is of the privatization of garbage. I've actually witnessed this in action between two of my neighbors; one who became upset with the people who go through the recycling bins and complained that they had no right to do that, that their garbage belonged to them and the city and that the city was supposed to be doing that, and another neighbor who countered that, no, this was giving these people an opportunity to fend for themselves. Can you speak to the issue of the privatization of garbage?
Livon-Grosman: In Argentina, as in so many places, the problem is trying to find a solution that will save the cartoneros' "jobs" but will change the conditions in which they work so that they will have the salary that they deserve and their share of the profit, which is very large at the end of the process when it gets to the paper mills. But it's hard to do that. It's hard enough to institutionalize by default what's going on now—the present working conditions in which informal recycling takes place in Buenos Aires—as opposed to developing a formal structure. The problem is that, in general, the more sophisticated recycling programs all over the world tend to have some kind of governmental support. It's hard to persuade Latin American politicians that they should be putting money into recycling when they think they will have a better political impact putting money into something else, for example housing or public transportation. It's a degree of awareness, I think, on the part of a large segment of the population that we need to change for politicians to be more receptive to the idea that there is political capital there and it will be seen as a positive decision for them to seriously invest in recycling.
Guillén: Cartoneros has been such an articulate first film from you, Ernesto, what can we expect from you in the future? Are you working on another film?
Livon-Grosman: I have started to work on the script for a new project, this time about Patagonia, which is an area I've written about and where I've lived for several years in the early '80s. I hope to travel and film in Patagonia soon, hopefully next year.
Guillén: Thank you so much for taking time from your busy teaching schedule, Ernesto.
Livon-Grosman: I really appreciate very much your interest in the film and thank you again for taking the time to ask such great questions.
Cross-published on Twitch.