LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Director Leslie Iwerks doubts any of her fellow Oscar nominees had spiders in their trousers while filming, nor would they find dead babies, animal carcasses, bubbling gases and an unbearable stench on location.
But that was the reality of working in Central America’s largest garbage dump for four years to make “Recycled Life,” nominated for best documentary short.
The dump in Guatemala City is a giant crater where thousands, including children, eke out a living by recycling garbage and foraging for food. Whole families have subsisted on the dump, generation after generation, for the last 60 years.
Clutching her camera, Iwerks and producer Mike Glad would descend into the pit, where filthy children raced up to the garbage trucks and scoured the refuse, plucking toys, chickens and chairs from the mounds. Kids have disappeared without a trace, apparently dissolving in the toxic gases.
“It was so hard to witness and document, and a lot of it I kept out the film because I just didn’t want to gross out the audience,” Iwerks told Reuters.
The dump may be the farthest thing from the glamour of Hollywood, but “Recycled” sends a message of hope and survival, the kind that resonates in the movie industry.
“There was an amazing beauty that came out of it, the human spirit,” Iwerks said.
Iwerks, 36, believes the contrast and conflict in the film were keys to winning her first Oscar nomination.
If “Recycled” prevails in the February 25 awards, she will be the third generation in her family to win an Oscar.
Her grandfather was Ub Iwerks, the Oscar-winning Disney animator who brought Mickey Mouse to life, and her father, Don Iwerks, won a lifetime Academy Award for his contribution to motion picture science and technology.
But it has not been all celebration for Iwerks these days.
Tragically, five days before the nomination last month, one of the film’s protagonists, Hanley Denning, a Maine native who set up an educational center for kids near the dump, died in a traffic accident in Guatemala City at age 36.
“She spent eight years dedicating her life in this really extreme environment, helping thousands of families get a better life and education,” said Iwerks. “It was the hope in their eyes and the progress the kids made that kept her going.”
Iwerks and Glad were not sure how their film would end when they started, but then a fire in 2005 fueled by the toxic gases alerted authorities to the danger for children working there — and changed the course for the kids and the film.
“Nobody was killed, but the whole place changed,” said Iwerks. “Regulations were enforced and kids under 14 were no longer allowed in the dump. It limited parents from using their children as labor.”
Iwerks said “Recycled” is her most powerful film yet and she hopes it will keep opening doors for future projects about underdogs and cultures that seldom get in the limelight.
“The night before the nominations, I thought, ‘I wonder if hard work does pay off.’ And it did. Hopefully, it can just help the people down there now.”
Iwerks has made a posthumous tribute to Denning and put it on the DVD along with the 38-minute documentary. A portion of the proceeds with go to Denning’s organization, Safe Passage (safepassage.org).