Filmmaker records life and death in Manila’s garbage dumps


“Someone get a saw!” yells a rescue worker frantically digging in a heap of garbage for a buried body. A blackened corpse slowly emerges, but rescuers are unsure if it is a man or woman. “I know her,” someone finally says. “It’s Mrs. Garret.”

The scene is Manila’s Payatas garbage dump in July 2000, and the lens of Japanese filmmaker Hiroshi Shinomiya is unflinching. The mountain of trash collapsed under the onslaught of a typhoon, burying around 500 hovels of people who forage for recyclable items in the landfill to survive.

As orange Hitachi power shovels scoop debris in the search for the living, Quezon City workers pluck bodies from polluted rivers flowing through the valleys of refuse. Shinomiya captures it all.

His second documentary “Kami no Kotachi” (“God’s Children”) premiered in Japan in November and chronicles the lives of three families of squatters who eke out an existence in Payatas under crushing poverty and appalling conditions.

It begins with the landslide that killed hundreds of people, burying many alive in the waste generated by the sprawling Philippine capital.

Death and disease stalk the dump. Shinomiya and his crew, including cameraman Toshihiko Uriu, lived at Payatas for about a year and recorded the daily funerals for local infants who succumb to illnesses such as cholera and measles. The infant mortality rate is as high as 30 percent.

Shinomiya focuses on Alex Inquillo, a 5-year-old boy who has a watermelon-size head and is unable to walk due to hydrocephalus, a condition in which cerebrospinal fluid accumulates in the cranium.

As he lies listlessly on a red rubber mat in his family’s clapboard shanty, his 50-year-old father, Felix, tries to shoo flies from his son, whose eyes roll back into his head as he moans for fish.

But Felix has no money to feed his family of four and must borrow rice from a neighbor. Illiterate and stricken with tuberculosis, he can no longer work in construction and scours the lunar landscape of Payatas for scarps of vinyl, paper, aluminum or metal to sell to recycling agents.

The average daily income of such scavengers, some only 4 years old, is 200 pesos, or about 515 yen.

Shinomiya also introduces the seven-member family of 12-year-old scavenger Nina Rosatase, who lives between two dumps in a crude shack.

Before they sit down to a meal of yams and salt, her unemployed father, Edomonto, 39, tells his story.

“In my home province (of Masbate), farms were destroyed by typhoons,” he said. “We became desperate. We escaped to Manila, but I couldn’t find work. So we started living here.”

“We haven’t had fish or meat in a long time,” said Nina, whose parents cannot afford to send her to school. “I always pray to God that we won’t get sick. Since we have no work, there’s no money to buy medicine.”

Originally from Sendai, 43-year-old Shinomiya trained as an actor before joining Dentsu Film, where he shot TV commercials and promotional videos, including material for U.S. artist Keith Haring.

He was searching for a documentary subject in 1988 when he was moved by the plight of Philippine street children.

The result was his award-winning 1995 work “Wasurerareta Kodomotachi — Sukabenja” (“Scavengers: Forgotten Children”), which is about young garbage pickers living near the notorious Smoky Mountain dumping ground.

Shinomiya said it was one of the three biggest slums in the world and home to roughly 21,000 people before Philippine authorities closed it down in 1995.

Many of the squatters from the provinces flocked to Quezon’s Payatas, dubbed Smoky Valley after Smoky Mountain and because spontaneous combustion causes clouds of fumes to rise from the 70-hectare wasteland of junk, which is piled as high as 30 meters.

Produced in cooperation with the National Federation of UNESCO Associations in Japan, “God’s Children” is a sequel to Shinomiya’s first film.

It deals with the aftermath of the government’s four-month closure of Payatas following the landslide tragedy, an act that left many of the 3,500 local families desperate as it cut them off from their lifeline — the 3,000 tons of garbage dumped there daily.

“In Japan, I never had the experience of seeing life and death as in the Philippines,” said Shinomiya at his office in central Tokyo. “(People there would be) alive yesterday, but dead today. I had never thought about how best to live. Now I understand.”

Residents of the landfill taught him that the basics of life, such as putting food on the table and being able to send children to school, can be the foundation for family happiness.

“To them, happiness is when they are with their families,” said Shinomiya, who added that the importance of family connections in getting a job keeps many Philippine squatters in the slums, including an estimated 30 percent of metro Manila’s population of 10 million.

“Above all, simply living is happiness, because there are so many deaths every day. Their lives are surrounded by death,” he said.

Another challenge was negotiating the line between neutral observer and helper.

A grandmother once begged them to help her sick infant grandchild, but Shinomiya decided he would do no more than help her find transportation to a hospital. The child was not treated and died. Shinomiya later resolved to lend a hand in life-or-death situations.

He tried to help 27-year-old scavenger Nora Canillas when her baby was born prematurely and required an incubator, but the child died of pneumonia and internal bleeding at a hospital six days later.

The film follows her family of three as they bury the baby and later finds Nora joining other scavengers at Payatas who cheer the return of garbage trucks and their cargo of discarded Coca-Cola bottles and other rubbish that will help them survive another day.

“Everyone was really happy to see the garbage returning. Most of them feel, ‘I don’t need anything, only garbage,’ ” Shinomiya said. “I hope people see the film as an opportunity to start taking some kind of positive action, like some may actually go to the Philippines, or become interested in the disparities between developed and undeveloped countries.”

The documentary will be screened again at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in February to celebrate its entry into the official competition of the 52nd International Berlin Film Festival, which runs from Feb. 6 to 17.

Shinomiya hopes to have it screened at 200 locations in Japan in 2002 and wants the Philippine government to see it as well.

“Many people who saw it said they got some kind of power from the film,” he said. “The most important thing is that I became able to feel that simply living is a wonderful thing.”