Nov. 2, 2006 • Volume 15 Number 5
Stories of the 'Cartoneros'
For his first film, Romance Languages professor turns the lens on his native country and finds a complex, and troubling, hidden economy
Five years ago, a severe financial crisis left Argentina reeling, putting millions out of work and into financial distress - today, in fact, more than 30 percent of the country lives below the poverty line.
As Assoc. Prof. Ernesto Livon-Grosman (Romance Languages) followed these developments in his native country, one particular trend borne of the economic downturn fascinated him: the increasing number of cartoneros, the poor residents of Buenos Aires and vicinity who make their living by collecting and selling recyclable paper and other materials.
Between 25,000 and 30,000 people comb through the city's 4,500 daily tons of garbage every night, Livon-Grosman found, picking out paper, cardboard, metal, and glass in an effort to support themselves and their families.
The scope and variety of cartoneros' enterprises so intrigued Livon-Grosman that he wound up making a documentary about it, in the process discovering the complexity of recycling and its social, political and cultural implications.
"Cartoneros," Livon-Grosman's first film, premiered Oct. 21 as part of the Boston International Latino Film Festival at Harvard University. Some 250 people turned out for the opening, which was shown in two screening rooms simultaneously.
The word cartoneros loosely translated from Spanish means "scavenger," but to Livon-Grosman and many in Argentina it has come to mean something more.
"Since 2001 there has been an explosion of this form of recycling, by the unemployed, displaced workers, many who are middle class and highly qualified in other professions, yet do it for survival," said Livon-Grosman, who spent three years working on the documentary, shuttling back and forth between the US and Argentina.
"Paper recycling is a multi-million dollar industry at one end and scavengers at the other end. My goal was to show the complexity of the business by following the processes that connected both ends of the process."
As an example of the multi-faceted nature of the recycling business, Livon-Grosman noted that some city trains were modified to accommodate the cartoneros and their carts, and carry them to the wealthier parts of Buenos Aires.
"There are many different ways that these groups of cartoneros are organized: some are self-employed, some work as co-ops. While some of those co-ops are more oriented toward production, others emphasized service and there are also some downtown areas that are controlled by organized crime."
While "Cartoneros" focuses on the plight of those who recycle for survival in Buenos Aires, Livon-Grosman said the phenomenon is not confined to Argentina. One goal of the film, therefore, is to get people to think about the economic implications of trash, he said.
"This is happening in many cities in Latin America - and in fact, if you want to take a larger view it's happening in many cities around the world," he said. "You can go back at least a couple of centuries, and there were always people in cities doing this. It's not a new phenomenon. What is new is the social and environmental impact of informal recycling in the world today."
Livon-Grosman's research specialties include Latin American poetics and travel literature, and he is currently working on an anthology of Latin American poetry. Among his projects is the digitalization of a journal on poetics and visual arts published in Paris by Uruguayan poet Carmelo Arden Quin during the early 1960s.
So why take a leap into documentary filmmaking?
"I was always interested in studying, watching and learning about documentaries," he said. "Learning to make one was more difficult. The learning curve was incredible."
Although "Cartoneros" wasn't even finished until a few weeks ago, says Levon-Grosman, earlier he was able to submit an uncompleted version to the Boston International Latino Film Festival because the organizers were willing to consider works in progress.
The production of "Cartoneros" has a second tie to BC: editor and co-producer Angelica Allende Brisk, who is the daughter of Prof. Maria Brisk (LSOE).
"We met through common friends, almost by chance," laughed Livon-Grosman, who plans to host a campus screening of "Cartoneros" next semester. "I told her I was from Boston College and she said her mother taught here."
Learn more about "Cartoneros" at www.cartonerosdoc.com/. - Stephen Gawlik