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The Russian Girl Who Grew Up in a Garbage Dump

Something to Come, premiering on HBO Europe this week, follows a child in a Russian garbage dump over the course of 14 years.

Trailer for Something Better to Come

Ten-year-old Yula lives in Europe's largest trash dump, called Svalka, just 20 kilometers from the Kremlin in Putin's Russia. It's the only home she's known: Heaps of garbage, where Yula and her mother, Tanya, are forced to work for an illegally-operated recycling business. They're paid in denatured alcohol (a substance similar to rubbing alcohol). The residents drink and bathe in melted snow. They eat rotten food scraps and sleep on trash in makeshift huts. Their only connection to the outside world is through the garbage of others and the glimmering views of Moscow that can be seen from the dump.


Fourteen years of Yula's life there are chronicled in a documentary, Something Better to Come, by Oscar-nominated director Hanna Polak. The film—which one reviewer called "Boyhood from a trashcan"—follows Yula from age ten to 24, through family struggles, rampant alcoholism, and a teenage pregnancy. Polak's use of cinema verité creates an intimacy and immediacy between subject and viewer. As viewers, we don't just see life in the dump—we feel it, touch it, and experience it, as much as you can from the other side of a screen. With subtlety and patience, Polak gently reveals the horror and destitution of Yula's life and the lives of those around her. But most importantly, Polak teaches us that shared grief and despair can create the truest form of kinship and community.

The film makes its debut on HBO Europe on Sunday, as well as select screenings in the United States this week. I spoke to Polak about the creation of the film, the decision to follow Yula, and the astonishing changes she saw over their 14 years together.

**VICE: *You must have met hundreds of homeless people while making this film. What drew you to Yula?***
*Hannah Polak:* She was outstanding in many different ways. You could immediately see that the camera liked her, that she is beautiful, that she has something really interesting in her face, in her eyes, something very strong, something very stubborn. I liked her immediately. I thought Yula and her mother Tanya were amazing because they really supported each other and were really close with each other, which does not often happen in these kind of difficult families. Often times, the parents are drinking, the children are alone, and they actually run away from those kind of abusive houses.


What was Yula's childhood like?
In Yula's case, she actually really did have strong relationship with both of her parents. She really loved her father, even though her father was very abusive. When she was a young child, he would send Yula to buy him vodka without giving her money. She would have to go around the small province where they were living and collect garbage and sell it. She would just have to go and find vodka otherwise she couldn't come back. So, you know, I think it's something on this emotional level—that they both have this capacity to be kind [in spite of everything].

They accepted me very quickly, both Yula and Tanya, and they were very easygoing and they would tell me things. And I wanted to listen and I wanted to be there, but [Yula] was a very difficult protagonist, because she never talked. When I was shooting, sometimes people would say, 'She's not interesting. Why don't you pick someone else?' But somehow, [I could tell it was] Yula whose fate was completely extraordinary.

Watch: Can Anyone Shut Down Greece's Volcano of Burning Garbage?

How did you relationship with Yula change over the course of 14 years? Were there any pivotal moments in your relationship?
She realized very quickly that she could trust me [and] that she could turn to me if she had small requests or questions. I was with her and I was trying to help her. Actually, this is how I was able to shoot the footage [when Yula was] in the hospital. I did not have permission to shoot, but the staff felt that Yula was so emotionally unstable that it was better [to have me there], because they knew that she felt safe when I was there. They said, "OK, you can film but just be there because we don't know if she is going to run away." So this is how I was able to observe the moment.


Yula was 15 years old when she got pregnant. She didn't really have any shelter, and I took her from the garbage dump to give birth. That was the moment she completely opened to me—she was completely frightened and searching for some kind of support in me and I felt that this was a moment when I finally understood many things about their life. This girl… It's not a film, it's a life.

Almost the entire film takes place in one of the largest garbage dumps in Europe, Svalka, which seems like a lawless dystopia. Who is in charge of Svalka and what are the politics of the place?
Svalka was opened in 1964 and is considered a military area because of the hazardous materials dumped there. There is a rumor that even radioactive waste from previous years is still buried in this ground. It's a huge mountain of trash, 14-stories high, stretching two miles long and one mile wide, surrounded by a fence. There are official staff workers, some of whom came up with an idea to open different kinds of businesses at the garbage dump, including recycling centers, but these businesses were not sanctioned and operated illegally. So, poor people come from all over to work at these illegal recycling centers where they collect recyclable materials and are paid with a small amount of money or vodka, which is not really vodka, but some kind of spirit. Many people are poisoned and die from this alcohol and the people in charge buy this alcohol for 30 cents and sell it for a dollar. It's become kind of a mafia situation, in which the people from the recycling centers beat someone who goes and works for another recycling center, and the people who are on the lowest level of this hierarchy suffer the most because they are paid pennies. They can be threatened, they can be killed. No one cares for their life and existence. So you can see that it's a huge business and there is an illegal market system in place.


It sounds almost like a micro-country with its own self-contained market system.
I think that was the most shocking thing for me—I found a country in the country. Normal country laws do not apply here, because there is this fence which is dividing this garbage dump from [other people]. Instead of the police protecting the people inside, the police is really protecting the outsiders. These people [in Svalka] have no rights to call the police if something happens, so then in turn, they've created a situation in which there are all these illegal things going inside and there are no investigations.

There was this one case of a woman who nearly raped; she was stabbed with a knife many times. It happened sometime after I met her and I saw that she only had one eye. I asked her, "Marina, what happened?" and she said, "I was attacked with a knife in this rape attempt." She said in the beginning she could still see, but after a month, she wasn't able to see anymore. I asked her, "Why didn't you go to the hospital? Why didn't you call me?" And she said, "Do you think I could go to the hospital? Do you know that they would start an investigation here, a criminal investigation, and I would never be able to return here?" I couldn't believe it. She had no rights.

Had you seen things like that happening—the police investigating after someone sought help or medical attention?
Yes, this is something I observed so many times. The police would come from outside to burn the houses inside, beat the people, put them in prison, for not having documents.


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The film is very subtle with its social commentary. We only really hear about what's going on in Russia and the world outside of the dump via the broken-down radios and what the people in Svalka see on television. Why did you choose to mediate social commentary this way?
First of all, I didn't want to create a cliché about Russia. I love this country, and I don't want to be amongst the people who just blindly criticize everything, politicize everything. I am not an outsider who is trying to find a bleak subject and talk about the country; I want to tell the stories of these people. I'm sure that many Russian people have no idea about what is happening, because no one talks about these people.

There is also the fact that this is a universal story—it's not only in Russia, but everywhere in the world that we have homeless people. I included the radio parts to create a sense of time passing and history passing. Putin came to power in 2000, and I used his career to draw a small moment in the Russian history. There is some kind of context to this place.

How do you think this film can help the people living in Svalka?
I hope that it will evoke discussion. I hope the viewers will be inspired by Yula. I don't even see the film about the garbage dump—I see this as an inspiring story, that we all are able to change our life, to [seize] our destiny. [I also hope the film inspires people to] be kinder and nicer; show more love and appreciation and kindness.

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