By Stephan Manning.
The new documentary “Landfill Harmonic” tells the story about a group of children from Cateura, a Paraguayan slum, who play instruments made entirely of garbage from a nearby landfill. A related Kickstarter campaign raised $214k in May this year to support not only the film project, but outreach programs and a world tour of “The Recycled Orchestra”. Is the Kickstarter campaign right in saying that “[such] creative and simple solutions can bring powerful social transformation to the poorest communities”? The campaign and a related video posted on Kickstarter, upworthy.com and other websites sparked a recent controversy about the real impact of such initiatives.
“I am enraged. Does nobody question why these people have to live from rubbish in the first place? This is just romanticizing poverty – maybe we have all read too many papers on the BOP (Bottom of Pyramid) myth?”
David Levy, here at UMass-Boston, comments:
“My instant reaction was to see parallels with ghetto orchestras in WW2. Yes, it’s a diversion for the trash dwellers/inmates, and we can admire their efforts to find dignity and create beauty amidst the horrors and poverty. But the video also serves to cynically divert our attention from poverty, death and oppression. The video has a strong ideological viewpoint; it’s a heartwarming story of human transcendence. But has the celebration of creativity and entrepreneurship become the new ‘opiate of the masses’? Does it soothe us, the audience, or mobilize political action? A very different video might use the orchestra as a hook to examine the realities of life in the trash piles, and explore the economic, political, and environmental factors involved. ”
The provocative question whether this initiative may “cynically divert our attention from poverty, death and oppression” sparked a number of follow-up comments by members of the OSC research group. For example, Banu Ozkazanc-Pan sees in “The Recycled Orchestra” a potential form of resistance:
“As I watched this, I thought of agency–who speaks for whom? Can ‘we’ as privileged academics call attention to social stratification while at the same time acknowledging some form of agency here? Is music a form of resistance to the material conditions that try to define and constrain us? And is this agency…”
Yet, Marc Lavine identifies another cause for concern in the using of poverty as a marketing angle. He notes:
“There are a host of artistic endeavors that use the social conditions of the artists/performers as part of the marketing. […] If you can intervene, make a movie, organize a touring orchestra (they played with Metallica!) you can surely get proper instruments for all of the players. It bothers me that all the word play of the Landfillharmonic and even Recycled Orchestra is designed for an English speaking audience (doesn’t translate well in Spanish). Is having everyone play on recycled instruments a variation of enforced primitivism or a clever tactic to stand out and potentially shine a light and help transform poverty?”
As for myself, I am torn between recognizing the intent and questioning the effect of this project. On the one hand, I can see a powerful message: People should not be treated like trash only because they are forced to live in slums. On the other hand, given that several orchestras exist in poor communities, do you need to live at a landfill and be able to turn trash into music instruments in order to be heard? Is the Kickstarter generation of social enthusiasts not so different from mainstream media consumers after all? And is it true that such creative campaigns are no more than a diversion from structural problems, as David Levy suggests, or can they really transform communities, as the campaigners want us to believe?
We invite your comments on this! (or longer reflections that we’ll publish as a blog post)
Documentary Waste Land: In line with David Levy’s call for “a very different video [which] might use the orchestra as a hook to examine the realities of life.”, Marc Lavine suggests that “Waste Land” delivers on these aims by exploring the economic, social, political, and environmental realities for those involved as well as the complexities of collaboration between privileged artist and film maker outsiders and people living in extreme poverty.
Katherine Boo (2012) Behind the Beautiful Forevers, reviewed here in Slate. Life for trash sellers in Mumbai.