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Yula stands in the landfill that served as her childhood home. (Photo credit: Hanna Polak)

Something from nothing

The girl who came of age in a garbage dump

By Brigit Katz on January 15, 2016

In an expansive garbage dump outside Moscow, a ten-year-old girl sits on a pile of trash, sucking on a cigarette. Bulldozers in the distance shovel heaps of trash into an open pit. Seagulls shriek overhead, swooping in to scavenge scraps from the fetid landscape. The girl surveys the scene in silent contemplation, puffs of smoke unfurling from her nose. Her name is Yula. The garbage dump is her home.

The exceptional, heart-rending circumstances of Yula’s childhood are chronicled in Something Better to Come, a remarkable documentary by Polish filmmaker Hanna Polak. Polak spent 14 years filming a secret community of outcasts who dwell among the refuse of an enormous garbage dump called “Svalka.” The people of Svalka are forced into the margins of society by destitution and homelessness. They subsist on cast-offs: discarded clothes, rotting food, shards of wood and shreds of fabric, which they use to build huts. At the center of this bizarre, dystopian universe is Yula, who comes of age against a backdrop of putrid waste.

Something Better marks the second chapter of Polak’s cinematic exploration of Russia’s forgotten children. While living in Moscow in the late 90s, Polak came across two homeless children begging in the Leningradksy train station. She gave them food, and they invited her to return in the evening so she could meet more children of the streets. Polak was shocked to discover around 70 boys and girls seeking shelter from the night within the shuttered halls of the station. With the help of some friends, she began providing the children with food, taking them on outings, paying for their education, and—in some instances—bringing them into her home. In 2005, Polak released a short documentary called The Children of Leningradsky, which portrayed the many tragedies and injustices that had befallen Moscow’s homeless youths.

It was these neglected, abused children who brought Polak to Svalka. The sense of shock she felt upon meeting the boys and girls of Leningradsky was amplified when she discovered an entire network of people—including young children—relegated to a festering landfill. “This is completely abnormal,” Polak said in an interview with Women in the World. “I can’t understand a situation in which we allow children to live and die on their own on the street, when no one cares … With the children of the street, it’s only one way: it’s a garbage dump, or it’s a street.”

As she began talking to the inhabitants of the landfill, Polak met Yula, a fair-haired and quiet child. Yula was brought to the dump by her impoverished parents, and her father died of tuberculosis not long after they arrived. Polak was instantly drawn to the girl, and decided to place Yula at the center of a film about the people of the landfill. She did not anticipate that she would spend more than a decade documenting Yula’s childhood, and did not know that the girl’s narrative arc would prove to be so full, so satisfying.

“I had this kind of relationship with her, she was very close to me,” Polak said. “She was at the beginning very shy, but she still wanted to be around. She was very curious … Of course, in the beginning, I didn’t have any idea how her life would develop.”

(Photo credit: Hanna Polak)
Yula stands by a hut in Svalka. (Photo credit: Hanna Polak)

Something Better opens during the early years of Putin’s reign, and his voice is sprinkled throughout the narrative, crackling through dilapidated radios cherished by Yula and her companions. The people of Svalka sit rapt as their President touts his salvation of the country in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, as he sings of an improved economy and an increase of staggeringly low birthrates. Juxtaposed against scenes of life in the landfill, these claims smack of a deep irony.

“We can see … a demographic problem in Russia, so people are very thrilled that children are born,” Polak said. “Then you ironically look how they [are] born, where they [are] born, to what they are born.”

In spite of these political undertones, Something Better is, more than anything else, a coming-of-age story. The film follows Yula through the landmarks of adolescence, which are warped by muck, grime, and the general sense of disorder that pervades Svalka. As children, Yula and her friends burn through cigarettes and guzzle liters of vodka. They monkey around in the crumpled shells of cars and play with discarded toys. They paint their nails and dye their hair with beauty products that surface in the waste. Within this city of trash, Yula falls in love for the first time. By the age of 16, she is pregnant.

(Photo credit: Hanna Polak)
Yula (center) and two other children of the garbage dump. (Photo credit: Hanna Polak)

Throughout Something Better, the landfill looms in the background, an ominous and seething character in its own right. It’s hard to think of a more literal manifestation of societal disregard for the homeless than Svalka, where the disadvantaged live among the detritus of civilization. The people of the dump are unwanted and invisible. Their lives are cheap. In Something Better, we see a gravely ill woman carted about in the shovel of a bulldozer before being tossed onto a pile of trash. Inhabitants die after drinking cheap, tainted alcohol, which is doled out by illegally-operated recycling centers in exchange for manual labor. According to Polak, people were often crushed by garbage trucks, which trundled over huts while the occupants were inside.

Filming in this environment was difficult and dangerous. It was also illegal. Because Svalka was laden with hazardous materials and industrial waste, it had been declared a military zone and was technically barred to outsiders. On several occasions, Pollack was hassled by police, who proved to be only one of many threats. Fights often broke out between factions of Russians and non-Russians living in the area. “Violence, would happen at the garbage dump,” Polak said. “The women were raped often.” Twice, Polak was attacked by wild dogs. And yet, she finds herself missing Svalka.

“I miss it because I liked the people, the children who were there,” Polak explained. “Of course it’s not a place you would dream of [going to] on weekend[s], but I liked the people. I think there was something really bizarre: we create a society where there is so much tension, and this kind of rat race, and people … are so distant to you. [Then] you go to a place [like the garbage dump] where people wait for you, where people accept you, where people are really happy to see you. And they sit with you and talk with you, and they are somehow very much easy-going.”

(Photo credit: Hanna Polak)
Yula (third from left) and other youths of Svalka pose for a photo. (Photo credit: Hanna Polak)

That the people of Svalka cling to their humanity in such dehumanizing circumstances is, perhaps, the most astonishing revelation of Something Better. Yula, her friends, and the adults of the garbage dump sing together, drink together, share whatever food they have. “They’ve basically lost everything in life,” Polack notes. “The only thing which is left is friendship.” It is a sentiment that Yula echoes in the film. “I have many friends here, and everyone is nice to me,” she says. “In the village, no one even shares a measly piece of bread.”

Still, Yula craves a different existence. “I want a normal life,” she tells Polak. “Not the one I have.” In a world saturated with despair—“You never make it out of Svalka” seems to be the mantra of the dump’s inhabitants—Yula dares to hope. Her pregnancy, and a difficult decision following the birth of her child, prove to be catalyzing forces that impel her to make a change. I won’t reveal just how events unfold, but by the time the film draws to a close, Yula has secured a small apartment, where she lives with her mother and boyfriend. “It wasn’t my fate to die in the dump,” she says, simply.

Yula’s resolve as she transitions into womanhood and decides to transcend the poverty and filth of her youth form the true heart of Something Better. “I really didn’t want to make a film about the garbage dump,” Polak said. “The film for me is Yula’s story about growing up. I think in a way this garbage dump is only in the background, a background against which the story is set. But I think what is very universal in this story for me is just this amazing fact of the human spirit.”

“[Yula] becomes so much more grown up, in a way,” Polak continued. “She comes to the moment when she wants to take her destiny in her hands, and I think this is the moment which is so universal for me, because this way the story becomes anybody’s story … Every one of us has this power of making a change in our life.”

“Something Better to Come” is nominated for a Producers Guild Award, and will air on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on January 24. More information about the film and screenings can be found here

(Photo credit: Hanna Polak)
Yula, who is pregnant, lies on a bed of hay in a shack owned by her grandfather. (Photo credit: Hanna Polak)