If you think the Oscars are all about Hollywood glitz, you might be surprised to learn that this year’s Best Short Documentary Academy Award could go to film about people who make a living recycling trash. "Recycled Life" is about the Guatemala City Garbage Dump and its residents—called guajeros—who sift through the trash for materials that they can use and sell. After winning awards at film festivals from California to Florida, Leslie Iwerks, the film’s writer and director, and Mike Glad, the producer, knew that their film was resonating with audiences across the country. Plenty caught up with Iwerks and Glad before the Oscar frenzy.

How did you pick this topic for your film?

Glad: We had gone to Guatemala to make a film on Mayan culture and the Mayan Indian population. Sort of by circumstance, we came across the Guatemalan City Garbage Dump and it just blew us away. The human population there and the activity going on is like nothing else we’ve ever seen in the world. The more we investigated it the more it captured our interest.

As you were filming, how did you hope that the movie would affect the public?

Iwerks: Our intention, basically, was to tell the story of the people living in this landfill. Journalists in Guatemala for decades have come in and talked about the dump as this living hell—as this horrible and wretched place. They talked about the people, these guajeros, as the underbelly of society. We knew there was another side to this whole thing.

How would you describe it differently?

Iwerks: I would say it’s a way of life. We’re all used to a better life if we’re from first world countries. There are thousands of people living around the world that are living from trash dumps. I don’t call it a living hell, I think that these people are making the best life they can and are hardworking and resourceful. They are actually saving recyclables and being environmentally friendly to Guatemala. If it wasn’t for them, that landfill would have filled up a lot sooner. 

Were there any particular people that you met that touched you or changed you?

Glad: I was tremendously moved by the kids. I remember taking a bunch of the kids to McDonalds and thinking that it was 15 minutes from the dump and some of them had never even been there. You take them in and you think they are going to run to the play area or they’re going to run up and order hamburgers and hot dogs, but no. They went to the bathroom to play with the water.

Iwerks: Hanley Denning was one. She founded an organization called Safe Passage about five years ago and she dedicated the last eight years of her life to helping kids get out of the landfill and getting them proper education. She was 36 and she was killed in a car crash. A truck hit her about three weeks ago and the day she was buried in Maine was the day of our nomination.

Do you think that your audiences are more aware of what they throw away because of your film?

Iwerks: It definitely wakes people up to the fact that everyone’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Story by Susan Cosier. This article originally appeared in Plenty in February 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

One man's trash is another man's Oscar
A toxic dump plays a starring role in an Academy Award-nominated documentary.