Susan Kouguell is an award-winning screenwriter, filmmaker, and chairperson of the screenplay and post-production consulting company Su-City Pictures East She is the author ofThe Savvy Screenwriter: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself). Follow Susan on Twitter: @SKouguell
“To have nothing is not an excuse to do nothing”
Conductor of the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura
After their awe-inspiring concerts made them viral sensations and put them in the spotlight of international media, The Recyled Orchestra of Cateura has been featured on 60 Minutes, NBC News, People, Time, Wired, Oprah Magazine, NPR Music, and more.
LANDFILL HARMONIC, the award-winning documentary has received over 30 awards at international festivals.
As a classically trained violist, I had the opportunity to play with a youth orchestra when I was a teenager and travel on concert tours to South America and the Far East. Whether we played in the jungles of the Amazon or a president’s palace, and regardless of the audience’s economic and ethnic backgrounds, these six weeks of summer travel and approximately 30 concerts, forever impacted my life.
The often-used phrase “the universal language of music” is not a cliché, it is indeed the truth and underscored in the documentary Landfill Harmonic.
Several years ago when I first saw the 60 Minutes piece about Favio Chávez and his Recycled Orchestra of Cateura in Paraguay, it grabbed my attention and as time passed the story of the orchestra continued to pique my interest. After viewing a press screener of Landfill Harmonic, I knew I had to set up an interview.
One doesn’t need to be a musician or even sing in tune, to be enthralled by the power of this film.
Landfill Harmonic follows the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, a Paraguayan musical group that plays instruments made entirely out of garbage. When their story goes viral, the orchestra is catapulted into the global spotlight. Under the guidance of idealistic music director Favio Chávez, the orchestra must navigate a strange new world of arenas and sold-out concerts. However, when a natural disaster strikes their country, Favio must find a way to keep the orchestra intact and provide a source of hope for their town. The film is a testament to the transformative power of music and the resilience of the human spirit.
Producer and co-director Juliana Penaranda-Loftus
Recently I had the opportunity to speak with producer and co-director Juliana Penaranda-Loftus by phone for our interview.
Juliana Penaranda-Loftus began her career working in production for prime time television shows in Colombia. After completing her Bachelor’s degree, she moved to the United States where she received her Master’s Degree in Film from the American University in Washington, DC. After September 11, she directed and produced a documentary about Aid Afghanistan, an organization fighting for the right to educate women. The organization used the documentary to raise funds to support schools and programs in Afghanistan. Since then, Juliana has produced several independent feature films and in 2009 established her own production company, Hidden Village Films with the purpose of producing films of social relevance. In 2012 she was one of eight women selected by the American Film Institute for their Directing Workshop for Women.
KOUGUELL: Tell me about the evolution of this film.
PENARANDA-LOFTUS: Alejandra Amarilla (Founder and Executive Producer) contacted me at the end of 2008 to talk about the idea of making a documentary about underserved children in Paraguay her home country.
In April 2009, we traveled to start the research and find the story. It was the last day of the trip when we heard the story about Favio Chávez and his efforts of teaching children with recycled instruments. Alejandra loved the story from the beginning and as founder she selected from the options we had. I loved the story too. We saw the potential with Favio to be able to take the kids to where they are today.
We started following up the story via phone calls and email. I was doing pre-interviews over the phone and email. We returned to Paraguay every year, sometimes twice a year depending on what was going on.
The production took five years. We started shooting in July 2010 and the last shoot took place in September 2014.
About the Collaboration
Landfill Harmonic is directed by Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley, and co-directed and produced by Juliana Penaranda-Loftus.
Due to the filmmaking team’s outside work commitments and changing schedules, the process was further complicated by the need to reshoot some sections. Penaranda-Loftus emphasized the importance of the great teamwork they had, which made this film become a reality.
PENARANDA-LOFTUS: Allgood and Townsley joined the project in 2012 and 2013. It was a collaborative work, as the story took place over the course of five years but Alejandra and I were keeping the integrity of the story from beginning to end. I was the direct contact with the characters over the years. Our co-producer, Jorge Maldonado, joined us in 2010 and he went to Paraguay since then too.
Brad Allgood was the director and editor; he also shot the flood sequence. Because of the amount of footage collected over the years, Brad was fundamental to building the overall story. Alejandra and I worked very closely with him on the structure since we followed the story from beginning.
KOUGUELL: Did you do pre-interviews with the young musicians?
PENARANDA-LOFTUS: Yes. We sent the interview questions to the field producer in Paraguay. Back then, the kids did not have Internet or phones, now actually everyone has one. We had five characters and we had to find who was the most open to talk. Some characters were closed to talk about their life.
KOUGUELL: Without being didactic, the film conveys several poignant messages about the universal language of music, as well as the direct connection about environmental issues (the complexities of the landfill provides jobs yet it comes with health risks) and the environmental disaster of the flooding the community endures to survive. Can you speak more to this?
PENARANDA-LOFTUS: We tried not to be preachy. We wanted to make a point about the environment, the music, and posing the topic of recycling in a different way without being that obvious. Music was giving us a means to talk about recycling. People don’t want to talk about global warming when we talked to them.
Favio Chávez actually raised that issue; he used music as a way to talk about recycling without saying, ‘We’re going to talk about recycling.' We knew that the music was very universal and emotional, and how Favio used music as a tool. Favio Chávez was an environmental technician and he tried to talk first about the environmental challenges and he felt he couldn’t do it. He found music as a way to talk about the importance of the environment and of recycling.
KOUGUELL: Indeed. If an audience member thought this film was romanticizing the town’s impoverished situation, the flood puts their story in raw perspective and the continued challenges the community faces.
PENARANDA-LOFTUS: The flood was obviously unexpected. In 2013, Brad was editing the film, we didn’t know how we were going to find the funding to reedit the film we just knew we had to film the flood.
Paraguay was devastated by the largest flood in over 20 years. Nearly 300,000 people were displaced due to the flooding, and many members of the orchestra were flooded out of their homes.
With their budget and time was running out, they took a skeleton crew to Paraguay on two shoots to cover the flood. The community of Cateura sat under nearly eight-feet of water for two months, as the 15,000 families in surrounding communities moved to higher ground, living in plywood shacks during that time.
PENARANDA-LOFTUS: The flood brings a lot to the story; it brings the issue about community effort and how they were able to help each other. It also brings the story of the environment, the floods that are happening in the world, and climate change.
Landfill Harmonic opens theatrically in New York City on September 9th and in Los Angeles on September 23.
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