Director Leslie Iwerks, under her company Iwerks & Co. has created a number of award-winning films, including the Academy AwardⓇ-nominated documentary Recycled Life—a story filled with heartfelt human tales told from the depths of the Guatemalan garbage dumps. Her film takes us into Central America’s largest and most toxic landfill, the Guatemala City Garbage Dump, where thousands of adults and children have been living, eating, and working over the last sixty years.
Hiplatina: Why did you take special interest in the making of this film?
Leslie Iwerks: I didn’t take it on for any other reason except for the fact that it was a very powerful story that I saw first hand when I went down to Guatemala and saw this garbage dump and all the people, the families, mothers, fathers, babies and children working in it. It didn’t matter what country I was in, it was the circumstance and the situation that was so powerful and overwhelming.
HL: How did you first learn about the Guatemalan people working and some living in the dump? What inspired you to make this film?
LI: The project came about when I went to Guatemala with Mike Glad, my co-producer. At the time, we were wanting to learn more about the modern Mayan culture. When we were there, I came upon a book called Out of the Dump in one of the bookstores and I told him this would be an interesting idea and we should explore it. Mike went on another trip to the dump itself, called me up and said, this place will blow your mind. Together, we went back and met with this young manager where we learned about the dump’s history, why people work there, where they come from, and the types of people who were there who sounded like a colorful cast of characters. We started talking to them, embarking on a journey that lasted three years….The strength, courage, perseverance, the humility, that’s what inspired me to make this film.
HL: Did Recycled Life have a lasting affect on you?
LI: It was a surreal experience. I was just starting my film career on my own. When making this film, I realized that I couldn’t take life for granted. It gave me a huge perspective in terms of how we live in the United States. I felt very fortunate to have a roof over my head, hot water, running water, food.
HL: Why is this story important and why is it relevant to this day?
LI: These people are living in abject poverty and eating from garbage trucks that are dumping from surrounding neighborhoods. Once they throw the food in the trash, the trucks pick it up and take it into the dump. The people in the dump know that the hot food is coming from the trucks, carrying restaurant leftovers that people don’t eat. They’d race to get to that specific truck. #4 or #5 to eat. They knew. They’d wait for it.
Although there weren’t a large number of people living in the dump, a few were completely destitute. Elmer, who is in the film for one; he built a shack out of branches and plastic tarps. He lived in the lowest part of the dump, the third level, the most wrench filled area of the dump. At the top level, at least there’s air. He also felt safer inside than going outside. We were in one of the most dangerous parts of the city. One early morning, we came in to capture the sunrise in the dump at about 5:30 a.m. and a murder had been committed. A body was found right in front of the garbage dump. Of course that’s going to give you perspective.
HL: When the film was seen and shown, did it have a profound affect on those working in the dump? Did it change the situation there?
LI: Well, there was a fire. I think it was the fire we captured on film that really changed things. Once that happened, it lead to the elimination of humans working and/or living in a toxic-filled dump. The fire had the most impact when it came to change.
Once the film came out and it got nominated, I think it created a lot of publicity around the situation there. Through fundraising screenings, helped to to raise, from what I have been told about three million dollars for Safe Passage, which is the organization founded by Hanley Denning to build schools for these children in the neighborhood, to get them into schools and find them job opportunities. I think it’s meaningful to champion and support causes like this and make a difference.
HL: What are you currently filming?
LI: In 2015, we filmed in New York and New Orleans to tell the life story of Ella Brennan, one of the leading matriarchs in the world of culinary arts. It’s her story of revolutionizing New Orleans Creole cuisine and is a legend in her field. Her daughter, Ti Martin wanted to capture her mother’s life on film before it was too late. I get it, I did the same thing for my grandfather by telling his story in my film, The Man Behind the Mouse—The Ub Iwerks Story. He was the original animator of Mickey Mouse and few people know this. I wanted everyone to know about his life’s work and contribution to the industry. Also, in production is the much anticipated ‘The Imagineering Story’ (Walt Disney Pictures) with ongoing filming being done in Los Angeles, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.
HL: What’s at the center of your work?
LI: I like to show the human spirit in my films: its genius, heart, perseverance, and brilliance in a myriad of creative and innovative ways. It’s important to me to make a difference, no matter how big or small.