Dir: Hiroshi Shinomiya. Japan. 2001. 105mins.
A documentary about children who scavenge for a living in a Philippine trash dump may sound like depressing fare, but Children Of God director Hiroshi Shinomiya has found strength and dignity in his subjects, as well as human dramas that make for compelling, if occasionally shocking, viewing. Opening in one Tokyo theatre in early November, Children Of God received a warm reception from local audiences and critics. This February it is being brought back for a two-week encore run, as well as for screenings in other locations around Japan. Abroad, it may find a similar small theatrical market, but festival screenings and television sales are a surer bet.
The film is an illustration of the documentarian's adage that reality follows no script. Intending to make a sequel to Scavenger: Forgotten Children, his1995 film about children at Manila's notorious Smoky Mountain dump, Shinomiya returned to the Philippines in July 2000 to document conditions among disabled children at Payatas dump in Quezon City - Smoky Mountain's successor. Heavy rains during the first week of filming, however, caused a large section of the dump to collapse, killing an estimated 1,000 people. Five days later the government closed the dump and Shinomiya's subjects were left without a livelihood. Changing his original plan, the film-maker began to shoot the reactions of the dump's residents to this economic disaster, focusing on the struggles of three Patayas families as well as the attempts by local residents to get the dump re-opened.
Four months later, they succeed, but in the interim the mother of one of Shimoyama's families gives birth to and buries a baby; the father of another, whose five-year-old son suffers from hydrocephalus, steals sheets of galvanised iron to barter for food; and the 12-year-old daughter of another scours the dump for scraps of saleable trash and digs for potatoes growing on the dump's slopes. "If things are so bad that we have to rob and steal, it's better to starve," she says.
Instead of helpless victims, Shimoyama patently reveals his subjects in all their humanity, including their individual resourcefulness, strong family ties and, the in case of one distraught father, exasperation with the camera's presence. What good, he asks, are these foreigners and their film doing for his family' One begins to want Shimoyama and his crew to give their subjects the makings of a good meal, if nothing else. But by keeping a low profile, while minimalising directorial manipulation, Shimoyama has made it possible for them to tell their own stories and emerge as fully rounded characters. Given a Western mass media that too often portrays the Third World as an anonymous, perpetually needy mass, this is a much needed - and truly moving - corrective.
Prod co: Office Four Production, League of UNESCO Associations, Japan Corp
Japan dist/int'l sales: Office Four Production
Prod: Hajime Haraguchi
Cinematography: Yukio Kubota
Ed: Toshihiko Uriu
Music: Gaku Kaneko