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Yula inspects makeup [Courtesy of Hanna Polak]

Yula’s Dream

The Russian Girl Who Grew Up in a Garbage Dump

It’s a universal story. There’s homelessness everywhere in the world… For 14 years, filmmaker Hanna Polak followed Yula as she grew up in the forbidden territory of Svalka; the garbage dump located 13 miles from the Kremlin in Putin’s Russia. Yula’s story – is a dramatic tale of coming of age and maturing to the point of taking destiny into one’s own hands. It is a story of hope, courage, and life

Youthful Yula has but one dream – to lead a normal life. She was one of the inhabitants of the “Svalka” outside Moscow. A few kilometers away from the Red Square, there it’s another world. This Svalka, known simply by its Russian term for rubbish dump, was the largest landfill in Europe.

Yula lives in Europe’s largest trash dump, called Svalka, just 13 miles from the Kremlin in Putin’s Russia. Her home is made of heaps of garbage, where she 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

Just like the others, the girl subsists on what she finds in the dump. From the mountains of rubbish she digs out clothes, food, cosmetics, sometimes an old radio, or a carpet. In the scrap collection centre metal junk can be exchanged for a bottle of vodka. Here this is the only currency.

As a child, Yula played innocent games with the other children and with the toys found in the rubbish. She cracked jokes, listened to music and read magazines plucked from the trash. She listened to the radio to keep up with what was going on in the outside world.

A few kilometers away from the Red Square, there is another world. Closed to outsiders, and completely forgotten. On the rubbish dump, the largest one in Europe, life follows its own, cruel rhythm. Although access to the site is restricted, people live there – homeless, lonely, and deprived of everything.

Among them is the ten-year-old Jula. Just like the others, the girl subsists on what she finds in the dump. From the mountains of rubbish she digs out clothes, food, cosmetics, sometimes an old radio, or a carpet. In the scrap collection centre metal junk can be exchanged for a bottle of vodka. Here this is the only currency.

Right outside of Moscow – home to the highest number of billionaires per capita – you’ll find the largest landfill in the world: The Svalka. It’s a hard place run by the Russian mafia. And it’s where Yula lives with her mother, her friends, and many others. Life is tough in the Svalka, but it’s also a place where beauty and humanity can arise from the most unlikely conditions. It is from this place that Yula dreams of escaping and changing her life, even if it seems impossible. She is just like any ordinary Russian teenager: she experiments with makeup, dyes her blonde hair red and then blonde again, and falls in love for the first time.

Her living conditions, however, are far from average.

Closed to outsiders, and completely forgotten. On the rubbish dump, the largest one in Europe, life follows its own, cruel rhythm. Although access to the site is restricted, people live there – homeless, lonely, and deprived of everything.

The Svalka. Life in a Moscow Dump. Yula, right, and a friend cook in the svalka [Courtesy of Hanna Polak]

Hope amidst Garbage

The Children Are Family

In the Svalka a young girl is extremely vulnerable, especially with such a high occurrence of rapes and killings. Yet Yula dreams, she laughs, she falls in love. She dyes her hair and puts on makeup. She cracks jokes, listens to music and reads magazines found in the dump to learn of the outside world; a world she can only dream of and glance at from her distant mountain of Svalka.

The Svalka is Yula’s terrain, with its own set of rules. As we follow her life, we discover this strange universe, where a bottle of vodka is currency; where corrupt police actually keep unwanted outsiders — such as journalists and social workers — away, in order for criminal activities to proceed unimpeded; and where there are no doctors to treat the sick, those giving birth or the frostbite in winter.

It also depicts a courageous young girl who takes her destiny into her own hands. It offers a unique look into Yula’s daring and deeply personal successes in the face of a daunting and seemingly hopeless scenario.

During the 15 years of Vladimir Putin’s reign in Russia, the life of practically every citizen has changed considerably. However, that doesn’t go for Yula’s family, who have spent these years living at the largest junkyard in Europe on the outskirts of Moscow.

Yula once said that the landfill used to be a source of hope for her.

“[It was] like the Pinocchio story: a field of wonder. There’s a pile of cookies here, a toy there.” She explained that people came there after having nowhere else to go, and hoped for a better life but only ended up in misery.

“I lost everything here. I lost my mother [to alcoholism], my father, I lost all normal life here. Before it was a field of wonder, but now I see it is a field of fools,” she said as a teenager.

At 13, Yula had started drinking.

“It helps you forget that you had something in the past, maybe a normal life, and now you simply don’t have anything,” she told me.

The worst horror in the Svalka was the rampant lack of hope. The place was like quicksand, dragging people deeper and deeper into despair – those who are sucked into this vortex of homelessness almost never managed to escape it. But Yula refused to live and die like so many others there.

When a couple of teens in the remarkable documentary “Something Better to Come” dream aloud about getting out of “this dump,” they’re not indulging in adolescent hyperbole. Just a few miles outside Moscow, the place they call home is Europe’s largest junkyard, an end-of-the-world landscape where castoffs — things and people alike — collect and are forgotten.

The portrait of life in the Svalka, the garbage dump, is also a coming-of-age story centering on Yula — pretty, tough, and determined to beat the odds.

Yula is ten years old when shooting begins, and Yula wishes her widowed mother would stop drinking. Three years later, she’s sharing the bottle with the grown-ups, huddled in a makeshift shack surrounded by mountains of trash. She’s also thinking about a “normal” life, one that isn’t controlled by illegal recycling enterprises that pay her and other scavengers terrible wages, usually in vodka.

But even while longing to escape harsh and primitive circumstances, Yula understands that the strong sense of community she knows is rarely experienced on the outside. A visit to her grandfather when she’s 16 and in particular need provides a brutal illustration of the point.

Hanna Polak’s documentary, which took 14 years to create, talks about Russian children pushed to the social margins. The touching Something Better to Come is a grim, but beautiful film about hope.

The film, a documentary, followed Yula for 14 years as she grows up while living, along with many others, in a gigantic garbage dump outside Moscow. Two things in that sentence should bring you up short.

One is the “14 years.” The film introduces Yula when she is 10 and it returns repeatedly to show how her life is progressing, until by its end she is a young adult. That’s commitment, and it yields an experience that creates a kinship. You feel as if you’re discovering what happens to Yula as, each passing year bringing maturity and changes. Yula is smoking. Yula is drinking. Yula has a boyfriend.

The other attention-getter, of course, is the part about living in a garbage dump. It’s a phenomenon that can be found all over the world — people who are homeless and jobless for one reason or another, living off others’ discards — but it’s particularly disheartening to see it so close to the prosperity of Moscow. The film gently underscores the contrast by occasionally showing the dump’s residents listening to President Vladimir V. Putin’s broadcasts, a politician’s bluster versus their squalid reality.

The camera is not an intruder, which invades their world, but an opportunity to talk about their lives. Something Better to Come is thus a story about preserved humanity. Despite all the brutality, life on the dump is full of nice gestures. Its inhabitants assist and listen to each other in the most difficult moments. The temporary community is cemented by a sense of loyalty.

Polak’s documentary contains many violent scenes. But it is the unremarkable ones that are the harshest. Like the scene, which shows the teenage Jula standing on a heap of rubbish and staring into space. Somewhere, quite near, stand white blocks of flats. They are within a hand’s reach, seemingly close. In reality, for the inhabitants of the waste dump Moscow is a distant continent. Few of them try to reach it. And even fewer succeed. Yula is one of those people. Hanna Polak’s film follows her on the road to her biggest dream: rescuing her mother from the dump. The documentary is crowned with a happy ending.

One of the characters of the story is Vladimir Putin. We hear his voice coming from radio loudspeakers on the occasion of national celebrations. He talks to his fellow countrymen about Russia’s bright future under his leadership. In Hanna Polak’s film these political speeches resonate like a cruel chorus. The world in which the characters live, is the reverse side of official propaganda.

They look at us as if we were worms, – says one of the protagonists, recalling a bus journey. – But we are human beings, too, Hanna – he adds, looking at the camera.

In this unearthly place, trucks and forklifts drive to and from shifting an endless supply of rubbish. Together with her mother, a handful of other children, and outcasts, Yula spends her days foraging in the filth for food, for shelter material, and for something to do. But she holds her head up high, lives her life and dares to dream of a little apartment of her own.

Yula

Yula’s family were thrown out of their apartment after her father’s death, a circumstance not uncommon to others who find themselves eking out an existence in the Svalka.

There are some moments of respite for her, at least in the early years: a ride down snow-covered garbage on a makeshift sled, a game of cards, a “date” with a bulldozer driver. These are fleeting, however. Like everyone else there, Yula dreams of one day escaping the dump, with its mafia thugs and unrelenting squalor, and as the years wear on, she aged prematurely by poor living conditions and vodka, the residents’ payment for scavenging.

Perhaps even more disturbing than the ordeal of Svalka life — is her rational yet heartbreaking decision to give up her baby rather than raise it in the dump — is Yula’s straightforward acceptance of her situation. “I’d like to hope for the best, but it never happens.” It’s this fatalism, even in the face of a belated turnaround in her fortunes that drives home the plight of Yula and those like her.

“It’s illegal to be in the landfill and filming is absolutely prohibited. No one wants the conditions at the dump to be made public.”

Hanna Polak

“This is a highly unusual project, especially because the shooting conditions were extremely difficult. It’s illegal to be in the landfill and filming is absolutely prohibited. No one wants the conditions at the dump to be made public. Everything is illegal. And it’s a dangerous place. You could get killed by wild dogs or run over by heavy machinery. There’s a lot of crime. It’s a nation within the nation. It was dangerous for me, but it’s even more dangerous for the people who live there. If they are hurt, they can’t call an ambulance. Officially, the inhabitants of the garbage dump don’t exist.”

Something Better to Come is the fruit of 14 years among the homeless kids in Moscow. The film and Polak’s work to help the homeless are so closely connected that it’s hard to tell whether she’s an aid worker or a filmmaker.

“I’d say I’m a filmmaker, but if I can help out, I do. The film comes out of a desire to do something for these children,” Polak says. Over time, she formed such close bonds with some of the children that she acquired a third role, as mother.

“These children are my family. They still are. I’m no longer in contact with many of the children in the film. I don’t know if they’re doing well or not. Maybe they’re alive, maybe not. Sadly, I don’t have the time to visit them all. I don’t know of the whereabouts of many of them. But I worry about them, so in a way they have become my children. I think they feel the same way. I took care of them. In many cases I didn’t know how great their tragedies were. Several of them were victims of sexual abuse, but I had no idea. Their suffering is unfathomable.”

“In 1999 Hanna Polak got involved in aid work in Russia. We were a group of friends who donated toys to orphanages and organised dinners for elderly poor people. One day, when I was walking through an underground station in Moscow, I ran into some homeless kids sniffing glue. I hung out and talked with them and realised that homeless children are a common sight in Russia. They did drugs and smoked and sniffed glue and had a hard life, but they were still kids. I thought, ‘It’s impossible to live like this.’

“I couldn’t sleep for days and was really upset emotionally. We’re talking about many, many children. So I went back with some of my friends who had also been touched and we tried to help the kids.”

That’s how Polak’s documentary Something Better to Come got its start. For Polak, it was initially about aid work, not filmmaking.

The homeless children living in train stations led Polak to even more shocking locations. At a Moscow landfill she came across a community of homeless people living among mountains of garbage, wild dogs and huge bulldozers. Among them was a girl, Yula, who was 10 when Polak first met her. Yula had come to the dump with her father and mother, as they lived in poverty and had no food. Her father later died at the dump. Now, Yula was dreaming of starting a family and living a normal life.

Polak’s camera accompanied Yula for 14 years. It watched the girl, when she fell in love for the first time, when she reached rock bottom and then bounced back trying to escape.

The rubbish dump resembles a swamp sucking under its victims. Every day they sink deeper and deeper. Once there, it is almost impossible to leave. In this hopeless world alcohol is the only escape. Many of the people that you see in the documentary, are already dead – crushed by bulldozers, run over by rubbish trucks, or just frozen after drinking too much.

Yula and her friends use snow to replace the water. The food they must eat could have easily poisoned them, and probably does, we’re just not aware of it.

Some of the young people that she met took her to the Svalka for the first time.

She didn’t have a permit to visit the rubbish dump (it would have been impossible to obtain one anyway), so they taught me how to enter undetected.

Inside, she discovered a dystopian place where hazardous waste was dumped, heavy machinery constantly operated, and hundreds of wild dogs roamed around. Although no one “officially” lived there, it was home to an estimated 1,000 people: the most destitute of Russia’s underclass. This community was exploited by a local mafia, which ran illegal recycling centres. The landfill was like a country within a country: hidden from the external world, lawless, but with its own rules and codes.

Few organisations or people helped Moscow’s homeless children. Virtually no one came to the landfill to help its inhabitants. For the outside world, these people didn’t exist.

I wanted to help the landfill’s inhabitants – through medical assistance, for instance, which I have brought to them over the years – but also by chronicling their lives.

Yula’s parents had brought her to the landfill when she was 10, after their home was demolished. Her father was an alcoholic and her mother, Tania, had lost her job. Their neighbours told them about the dump, where food could be found and pennies earned. Shortly after the family arrived, Yula’s father was detained in a prison for the homeless where he contracted tuberculosis. He died soon after his release. Tania became an alcoholic and Yula looked after her mother. Yula grew up quickly, in a world rife with poverty, despair and decay.

Her mother, who struggled just like everyone around her to support their children or even their own life, because the police sometimes arrive and destroy their houses and ask them to leave the dump. But where else can they go if the government treats them as a trash of society that should be cleaned up?

Yula 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.

Although Yula was shy and didn’t speak often – not an easy protagonist to film -Polak was drawn to her. She was feisty, stubborn and fun; she was different from the other children.

Her home, this huge mountain of trash, almost 100 metres high and nearly two kilometres long on one side, was surrounded by a tall fence. Guards monitored it closely to keep intruders out.

The people who lived there worked as scavengers, sorting the rubbish which came from Moscow, collecting recyclable materials, such as bottles, metal, paper and plastic, for the “waste mafia”.

The workers earned just two rubles ($.03) per kilogramme of metal sorted, not the 78 rubles ($1.27) per kilo they could’ve earned outside. A bottle of fake vodka – a grain alcohol manufactured for industrial use – was the most common form of currency. The mafia paid the dump’s denizens with vodka.

This mafia posed a constant threat to the waste-pickers’ lives: if the dump’s inhabitants tried to work for a different trash overlord, they risked being beaten or killed. If they tried to remove goods from the landfill they risked execution. If they were killed, they disappeared into the rubbish for ever.

Bulldozers sometimes buried people alive. Women were frequently raped. Yet the police were never called; it was common knowledge that criminal investigations or ambulances weren’t welcome there. Corrupt police officers kept charity workers and ambulances out. On the rare occasions that the federal police did come, they burnt down huts and arrested people for living there illegally.

For most of the people who came to the Svalka, this was their last stop before death. Most deaths occurred during the cold Russian winter, when storms swept across this mountain of waste. One winter, Yula counted almost 30 deaths in a week.

There, everyone was a doctor. People got sick, gave birth, and sometimes cut off their own limbs or toes when they froze in order to avoid gangrene.

Although life was grim, it also often brought out the best in people. The landfill’s denizens generously shared their vodka with each other and opened their ramshackle sheds to shelter those who needed it. Despite the misery that life had to offer, people strived for normality in the dump.

Yula

Yula

At 15, Yula realised that she would never be able to have a normal life outside the Svalka unless she found the strength to leave this vicious cycle of poverty, addiction, and hopelessness. The first step was to find work outside the Svalka. She learnt how to cut metal parts and make fences for the cemetery. The work was hard and dirty and badly paid, but with this job, she took her first step outside the rubbish dump.

She and her boyfriend Andrey – who was brought to the dump by his mother, who ended up dying there – managed to find cheap accommodation. He and Yula supported each other as best as they could.

Yula stopped drinking. She found seasonal work despite her lack of formal education. And, just as Yula turned 21, she got one lucky break: she discovered that she was eligible for a government subsidy for housing because her father’s apartment was demolished.

Yula’s determination grows as she is never certain if this is the life she wanted to have, or the child she expects at her young age. She got her own apartment and on April 25, 2014, she gave birth to a baby girl, Eva.

“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.”

Hanna Polak

What once seemed like an impossibility to Yula had become a reality, albeit not an easy one.

The apartment Yula owns is 300km away from Moscow and both she and Andrey can only find small jobs in the city. They travel between work and home, leaving Eva in the care of Yula’s mother, who now lives with them. The economic sanctions on Russia don’t make it easier – there is less work than there used to be and their wages have dropped.

In July this year, Eva was diagnosed with a very serious disease – osteomyelitis – an extremely rare bone marrow infection, which has required several surgeries and constant medical attention. Eva now awaits more surgery and Yula has stopped working to care for her daughter full-time. Andrey struggles to find work.

The couple are barely able to pay the bills, let alone cover the mounting medical expenses for their daughter. Yula worries about losing her daughter, who remains seriously ill. She worries too about having to give up her apartment and being forced to return to the dump.

She said she never thought “normal life would be so hard”.

As she faces another struggle, Polak thinks about what Yula told her when she just got her own apartment, when I asked her what she thought was unique about her.

“I don’t feel unique in any way …,” she had replied. “Well, perhaps in one way – if I am offered even the slightest opportunity, I will seize it and utilise it to the fullest.”

Courtesy of Hanna Polak

Svalka was opened in 1964 and is considered a military area because of the hazardous materials dumped there. There is a rumour that even radioactive waste from previous years is still buried in the 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 centres, but these businesses were not sanctioned and operated illegally.

So, poor people come from all over to work at these illegal recycling centres 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 centres beat someone who goes and works for another recycling centre, 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.

The Svalka was closed in 2007. A smaller dump was opened on the same landfill site where people continued to live.

Something better to come

Something Better To Come – Hanna Polak Films – Official Website

The Russian Girl Who Grew Up in a Garbage Dump – VICE

Review: ‘Something Better to Come’ reveals lives in a Russian dump …

Growing up in Russia’s biggest rubbish dump | Russia | Al Jazeera

The girl who came of age in a garbage dump – Women in the World in …

Russia’s Invisible Children – An Interview with Hanna Polak | Article …

Something Better to Come – Wikipedia

Powerful Doc Something Better to Come Tracks Life in a Moscow Dump

Something Better to Come | Production Trailer on Vimeo

Growing up in Russia’s biggest rubbish dump – Arielis

Something Better to Come | Danish Documentary

 


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