FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW | 'GOD'S CHILDREN' (March 28, 2002)
A Hell on Earth, Lived by Children and Parents
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
"God's Children," an unblinking documentary portrait of hell on earth (or at least one version of it), focuses on the desperate lives of three families eking out a living in the enormous Payatas garbage dump on the outskirts of Quezon City, in the Philippines. Facing malnutrition, disease and a high infant mortality rate, the families display remarkable dignity in the face of disaster.
You will leave the film awed at the human capacity to adapt and even to find moments of joy in the most squalid circumstances.
But "God's Children" is no weepy paean to the triumph of the human spirit. Directed by Hiroshi Shinomiya, it is the sequel to his 1995 film, "Scavengers: Forgotten Children," which examined life around Smoky Mountain, an even larger garbage dump, outside Manila. Until the Filipino government forcibly dismantled it in November 1995, Smoky Mountain was considered the largest slum in Asia.
The Payatas site, which has been nicknamed Smoky Valley in recognition of its notorious forerunner, is the dumping ground for 3,000 tons of garbage daily. Around it cluster 18,000 families, most of them illegal squatters who have migrated from impoverished farming villages. The residents earn a subsistence living by scavenging paper, plastic, empty cans, aluminum and vinyl, which they sell to dealers. Children as young as 4 poke through the garbage from early morning until late at night.
In July 2000, shortly after the movie had begun filming, a typhoon flooded the area, causing a landslide that killed 1,000 people and destroying 500 homes. The scenes of stagnant brown rivers and of garbage-crusted bodies being dragged out of the rubble are almost beyond description.
Five days after the landslide, the government closed the dump for safety reasons. Deprived of their livelihood, the residents organized a march on the capital to demand its reopening, and the smaller of the two heaps that comprise the dump was eventually reopened. One month after the collapse, spontaneous combustion at the site blanketed the area for days with the putrid stench of unburied bodies.
The bulk of the movie focuses on the desperate lives of the three families as they struggle to survive during the six months the dump is closed. We meet the 12-year-old Nina, who has lived there with her parents and four siblings for two years. When the dump is shut down, the family subsists solely on yams planted on its slopes.
The saddest figure in the movie is the 5-year-old Alex, suffering from hydrocephalus. During the crisis, his family (a mother, father and two elder sisters) survives on borrowed rice and food donations from neighbors. The father reluctantly admits he stole and sold the iron roof sheeting from a nearby house to feed the family.
Finally, there is Nora, 27, a pregnant mother who lives with her tubercular husband and Maricel, their 6-year-old daughter, at the base of the dump. When her baby is born prematurely and dies, the camera zeroes on her grief.
At such moments, "God's Children," which New Directors/New Films is screening at the Museum of Modern Art tonight and Saturday afternoon, doesn't know where to draw the line between grim observation and exploitation. The camera lingers far too long on Nora's tear-stained face.
And when the filmmakers interview Alex and prod him to say what he wants for his future, the movie becomes so intrusive and emotionally pushy that it works against itself.