Mindaugas Survila: “I just captured what unfolded before my eyes”

I was in the Buda forest a lot while I was making the film and these people started gradually accepting me into their circle: I’d accompany them to the dumping ground, spent the Christmas Eve and the New Year’s Eve with them.

I saw them in a light that’s totally different from that portrayed by the media. Not only do they work hard every day but also read books, listen to music, joke around, love, cry, play cards, cut their hair, and always help each other”, – said the film’s director Mindaugas Survila.

Tell us what encouraged you to make a film about people living in the Buda forest by the Kariotiškės dumping ground.

For years ago, Donata Petružytė was writing her doctoral thesis on the inhabitants of the Kariotiškės dumping ground. She had to apply the so-called visual etnography method – in other words, her observations not only had to be written down on paper but also photographed and filmed. I was working at the television back then and had recently made my first documentary on the ospreys. A buddy inquired if I’d be interested to come with Donata to the dumping ground and make a few shots.
I thought I’d give her a hand. But as soon as I went down there, I immediately realized this couldn’t finish with several casual shooting sessions. I must make a film…

Why? Because of the first impression?

There was something weird in the air when we arrived – the rain, mixed with snow and those people digging in trash… It was just unbelievable, like a whole another world. Garbage trucks pulling in one after another, immediately getting surrounded by people. Younger ones would jump onto a truck that would still be moving and would throw down the trash bags, which would fly over people’s heads and smash onto the ground… Then the crowd would immediately jump onto the freshly thrown trash and quickly collect the recyclable materials. I was shocked to see this sight.
But with time I began to see more clearly. Started noticing individual people in the crowd: dressed differently, collecting different waste, talking to each other, smiling. Yes, their job is an exotic one but “they” are just like “us” – human beings.
Although our outfits weren’t much different, we felt like oddballs. We were taken for another journalists, who come over, take pictures, only to write some sensational stories afterwards. Soon after, a young man approached Donata and me and yelled at us. We weren’t welcome there… Any kind of videotaping was out of talk. Ahead of us was a long way of getting to know them and getting accepted by them.

Where did you start?

We would go and work with them, sorting the waste, helping older women carry heavy bags. Then we’d stand around bins with fire in them, warming ourselves together… Of course, in the beginning, they would change the subjects of their conversations as soon as we showed up; everybody would shut up, somebody would walk away altogether. I guess they thought we were secretly taping them. However, work helped us begin to get along. We were sorting the waste with them and giving it to our new friends. Of course, we weren’t much of a help because we didn’t understand much but this was how we made friends with them and a couple of months later some of them invited us to their home.

So it took a couple of months to get around each other?

This was a constant process. At first we talked more about general things, slowly opening up to each other… My goal was not to win their trust as soon as possible, capture everything on tape and disappear and forget about it. I was visiting my friends that I could trust. This was a greatest gift to me. Eventually they stopped noticing my camera and talked to me paying almost no attention to it. Sincerity was the only condition for our friendship. If you’re open in your relationships, you eventually get the same in return.
When I first arrived, there were around hundred people working in the dumping ground. The majority were coming from elsewhere but the rest – around thirty of them – lived there permanently. Eight years or so ago, the dumping ground was a paradise. A hard worker was able to make about 200 Litas in sorting out the trash and collecting what could be sold. It was just a job and it wasn’t done by just anti-social people, as it’s often imagined. They had a complete freedom – you work if you want to and you don’t if you don’t. There were no rules pre-defined by the society… That’s what made those people exceptional to me.

Did you realize, while you were shooting, that you were capturing the place, the people, this unique community that was about to vanish?

I was just capturing what was unfolding before my eyes. All this exotic and unrealism. Imagine – you walk across the dumping ground, amongst piles of garbage, and there’s a puddle that’s covered with a red carpet… So that’s better to pass (laughs). Because there’s loads of carpets thrown out. Or take clothes: all the garbage people dress fashionably because they’ve got lots to choose from (laughs). Of course, this is a kind of grotesque but the contrasts in that environment are just unbelievable. Yet what I found to be the most interesting was the unique opportunity to know the people, to see who and what they really are.

How did they respond to your idea of a film?

They agreed to be filmed with one condition – that the footage will not be broadcasted on TV. None of them is proud of how and where they live therefore they don’t want to hurt their relatives. As for the filming itself, there were no problems – they just got used to me and my camera. I showed them the film too recently. They said they liked it.

What were your greatest surprises, discoveries in interacting with those people?

When we had already become regulars in the dumping ground, a man once approached us, pulled a couple of chocolate bars from his pocket and gave them to Donata and me… Up till then we somehow thought it was us who had to give them something, not they… But everything was vice versa. More than once we returned from the dumping ground with gifts, such as clothes, skis that I still use…

Where do you think the negative attitude, even resentment, towards those people stems from?

A key part here is played by the media. That’s why journalists aren’t welcome in the dumping ground territory – they always take the easiest way – to make up a scoop as fast as possible. Therefore there’s a distrust in them, based on the experience of the people or their acquaintances.
There’s a tragicomic episode in my film, with the inhabitants of the dumping ground reading a newspaper article about themselves and laughing at how their life is depicted. There’s hardly a single word of truth in that paper… Journalists write a story just to attract attention and this is done by exaggerating or even making up things. Thus their goal is not to show the reality but to conceal it even more.

Is that why there are no sad stories in your film, only daily, mundane life?

I did hear those stories, too, but they were told to me as a friend. Its very personal so I couldn’t show it. I don’t think it’d be fair. By publicizing their stories I’d have to select what seems important to me and that would be emphasizing certain things. What I was seeking in my film was consistency in revealing the story here and now. I’m just showing what I saw…

You have seen this community from very close, taken part in their day-to-day life as well as celebrations. What are the ties and relations in the community itself, what did you find most striking?

Live and warm human connection. There are injuries in the dumping ground, a truck runs over someone’s feet. While ambulance is on its way, everybody takes care of the injured one, lay him down comfortably, immediately make way for the doctors to pass through the garbage.
Being with those people opened up unexpected things to me. Those who lead a normal life think they live rightly and decently, have a job, pay taxes, drive a car, go for shopping. But are these the limits of decency? What’s more ethical – to live in a forest and do no harm to anybody or to have a business and use one’s employees while getting rich? The distinction between the good and bad is highly relative.

Why does the dumping ground, this whole environment, become the Field of Magic?

It’s very simple – that’s how the locals call it. Why? Because you never know what you’ll find here. There’s a legend from the first years of Independence that somebody found ten thousand dollars in the dumping ground. Isn’t that a field of magic?

You never know what today may bring. Does it mean it’s better to only care about today instead of thinking about the future?

I don’t think this formula can be applied to their life. They do take care of their life – prepare wood for winter, collect things that they sell when buyers come over, repair their homes. They really take care of their future. And their homes – with windows, furnaces… I remember coming here in winter, when the temperature outside was minus 15 but inside they had short sleeved clothes on – It’s cozy and nice at their place.

I thought the film speaks volumes about ourselves, especially the kind and amounts of stuff we’re throwing out. Those people do live on what we no longer need. On the other hand, it raises the environmental problem as well…

This is a question for the viewers, not me, what they will see and how, what accents they will put in their heads. That’s the beauty of any film. My goal isn’t to provide specific answers but just to show these people and their lives.

There’s a great scene with the Lithuanian flag hanging upside down…

What’s interesting is that the flag was found in the trash. Everything’s from there – crucifixes, books, rugs, various appliances…

Is it because you’re a naturalist, that you open and close your film with images of nature?

With the nature episodes I just wanted to show the environment they live in. Like I said, I enjoyed being there not only because I made friends gradually but also because I had a chance to be in the woods.
All the footage – a total of around 150 hours – I took as a naturalist, just watching carefully what was going on. I never told them to do something, never stopped anything thinking it might be interesting for the audience. I didn’t direct anything. Even the last scene, where a woman calls her son on the Christmas Eve, isn’t staged. She just asked me to lend my phone and I did. It was Christmas Eve, after all…

A great many of those people are no longer alive. The end credits contain a number of names that are circled…

That was the hardest part during those years. You come down there and somebody’s gone, another one, third. And you stop wanting to go there at all. But since I had already established a close bond, I just couldn’t not to go.

What is the community like today? Where did they end up after the dumping ground was closed?

The closing of the dumping ground was a radical change for all of them. In accordance with the EU directives, what gets into a dumping ground can no longer leave it so people were banned to work there. The community dispersed. Only four people have been currently living in the Buda forest. It’s their home…

Do you think your film and raising such sensitive topics in general can change anything?

Prejudices and stereotypes are born out of ignorance. They get rooted in and flourish due to different processes in the society. As I said, the present day media takes the easiest, least time and energy consuming way – it simply keeps confirming its own previous stereotypes. I think one has to show another side. I don’t know whether this film is going to change anything just like that. Those stereotypes are deeply rooted in people’s minds. But you have to start somewhere, don’t you?
At times I couldn’t understand if I want to go to the dumping ground to make my film or if I want to be with those people.

Translate by Laimonas Vaičius