Landfill Harmonic is the acclaimed SXSW and AFI FEST audience award winning film following the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, a Paraguayan musical youth group of kids that live next to one of South America’s largest landfills. This unlikely orchestra plays music from instruments made entirely out of garbage from the landfill. When their amazing story goes viral, the orchestra is catapulted into the global spotlight. With the guidance of their music director Favio Chavez, they must navigate this new world of arenas, stadiums, concert halls and sold out performances. However, when a natural disaster devastates their community, the orchestra provides a major source of hope for the town.
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Read the interview highlights below, or listen to SCP Radio’s full-length podcast:
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Sean Ritchie: Let’s talk a little bit about who you are and your connection with Landfill Harmonic.
Juliana Penaranda-Loftus: I grew up in Colombia in a city called Cucuta. It’s next to the boarder with Venezuela. When I heard about this story of Landfill Harmonic, I [felt] a strong relationship with what was going on there. Because, back in the 80’s, when I was very young and I said I want to study film, back home and back then arts were not taken seriously. Coming from a family of lawyers, if you said you were going to become a filmmaker that was like the last thing you could say.
So, when I met them in 2009, I had just moved from Washington, DC to Scottsdale, Arizona to shoot a film. I met the founder and executive producer of the film here in Arizona. He approached me and said, “I want to make a film in Paraguay. It’s my home country. I want to make a film about under-served children. Every time I say, ‘I’m from Paraguay’, people look at me and say, ‘Where is that?’”
© Marissa Strniste
We traveled in the spring of 2009 together, and we found different stories. This was the most compelling story. Alejandra Amarilla, who is the executive producer and founder, she said, “I love it!” I said, “I love it too, but the only thing we have to make sure is that characters go through a journey, and it’s going to take quite some time.” So, that’s how everything started. Every year since 2009 we kept going back.
SR: Now, let’s transition to the film’s timeline. I heard it took almost seven years to film this project?
JPL: The research started in 2009, that’s when we found the story. Then we had to get the funds to go back and actually shoot. So, we went back in 2010. We thought that we were going to finish the film with one of the tapes of the orchestra in Oslo, Norway.
So, we were filming there in September of 2013. In May 2014 it was raining nonstop it was really effecting [Paraguay]. We were finishing editing and we said, “What do we do? This is so important. How can we get this into the film?” We had no funding, because we had just finished.
We said we had to film it. So, we went back to Paraguay again in 2014 to film how the country and community was facing these hard times with the climate change. So, we finished complete production in September 2014.
SR: For the readers that don’t know much about Landfill [Harmonic], what was the initial start? How did it come to be what it is today?
JPL: Landfill Harmonic is a story about children who live around the biggest landfill in Paraguay. Who perform in an orchestra using instruments made out of trash. This film follows their transformation and journey over the past five years; how they leave the country for this first time, and how they were discovered to start playing in other countries. So, it’s a story about resilience, hope and transformation.
SR: I myself am drawn to human-interest stories. It’s pretty cool to see kids who didn’t have an outlet anywhere else now have one, and make an impact, not only for them, but their surrounding community.
JPL: Thank you, and it’s very interesting now that you’re coming from a travel perspective. For us, it was really important for us to film the first trip. These kids when we met them, many of them didn’t have an ID. So, in order to travel abroad they had to get an ID; they had to get a passport. They had to get luggage; they didn’t have luggage. The film really does a great job living and experiencing with them the first time they travel.
SR: What was it like to watch the kids experiencing travel for the first time? What was their overall reaction?
JPL: It was quite fascinating. For some of them, they were afraid of the challenge and leaving their town. You would think, because they live there, they would be happy to leave poverty. After a few days we were traveling, they always wanted to go back, because that was where they came from. They always want to travel, but they always want to go back to Paraguay. That’s where they feel they’re from.
SR: Now that some of the older kids have been traveling for a few years, do you think it’s added any perspective to their life?
JPL: Absolutely, they actually appreciate the infrastructure of other countries, and the way other people interact. They try to [have] a learning experience [with] each trip and each culture. Some of what they learn they try to apply in their communities.
When they went to Oslo, [Norway] for example, it was the cleanest city in the world. So, coming from Cateura to the cleanest city in the world, that was a culture shock. When we made the reflection and [came] back home, they made the reflection of how clean and organized everything was; how they would like to apply certain things in the community. They try to take a day off, if they can, to experience each country. They have visited 33 countries now.
SR: What are some that stood out in comparison to others?
JPL: I know that going to Japan was quite different to them. Going to Qatar was so different than what they’re used to – the climate, clothing and religion. [Two] of the places they love the most are Israel and Palestine, because they interacted with kids from both sides. That was an amazing learning experience.
SR: Landfill Harmonic is all about giving back and helping people. What initiatives are currently taking place in that regard?
JPL: Some of the trips are educational, they get experience. Some of the trips they raise funds for the community. So, when they are able to raise funds, they use it as a way to give back. The orchestra gives school grants to the kids, and that pays for some of the kids to finish high school to go to college. They also have a housing fund, where they help the families to get better housing.
Recently, they were able to give health insurance to the garbage pickers. All the orchestra members have health service now. So, they’re always trying to give back to the community. The older kids are now teaching the new kids, it’s like a chain of knowledge. It doesn’t just stay with a group. New kids start forming part of the orchestra as they learn.
SR: Lastly, to wrap this up, how has traveling really impacted the orchestra as a whole?
JPL: Favio said something that I really love, “Opportunities like this,” and he was referring to traveling, “They’re like a train that passes once in a lifetime. And, they will never be totally prepared for that.” They see each trip like a new experience to meet new people, and to experience new cultures. When they go back home, they tell their community what they experienced. So, travel is part of the orchestra now. The most important thing is traveling gives them a stage to say, “If we can do it, we come from a landfill town, we’re proof that anybody can make it.”
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For more on Landfill Harmonic visit the movie’s website: