Hollywood Film Festival 2015: Something Better to Come, by David Bax
It’s beyond a cliché to say that movies can transport us to new places. But when a documentary relays to us a nearly incomprehensible world within our own, an almost entirely closed ecosystem that we may know exists but that we have successfully ignored, that’s worth remarking upon. Movies as fully realized as Hanna Polak’s Something Better to Come rise above any clichés.
Just on the rim of Moscow sits the Svalka, the largest garbage dump in Europe. Hundreds of Moscow’s homeless live their lives here, day in and day out, clothing themselves, feeding themselves and fashioning shelters from what they can forage out of the city’s refuse. Polak had already been volunteering her time, attempting to get medical attention to this population, when she decided to start filming the people, especially a lively and self-assured ten year old girl named Yula. That was in 2000. Polak followed Yula around with a camera for fourteen years before assembling and releasing this staggering film.
Polak shows us the Svalka in such a way that it could just as well be an alien world, or one of those post-apocalyptic dystopias in a young adult novel. The terrain consist of hills of garbage, swaying not with the wind but with the terrible grumble of the dump trucks and bulldozers that forever add to it and move it around. Off in the distance are the high-rise buildings of Moscow, all concrete and light and sharp edges, filled with apartments and homes and people whose lives seem less and less fathomable the longer we spend in the dump. The only signs of life apart from the human residents are the gulls, so numerous they nearly block out the sun and so ubiquitous that their atonal song is a constant din. Credit here must go to the sound by Kristian Eidnes Andersen. The otherworldliness of the Svalka is made complete by the way footsteps, machines and birds blend together in a way that seems unique to this place.
Polak’s reasons for choosing Yula as a subject are obvious from the first time we see her. In garishly clashing clothes, short-cropped blonde hair and electric blue eyes, she is visually distinct from the gray surroundings. But it’s also in the way she carries herself, a ten-year-old scrapping with the older boys and then asking her mom, almost as a complaint, why she made her so pretty. The film becomes both a portrait of Yula’s life in the Svalka and a survey of the dump as a whole through her eyes. Alcoholism, rape and death are just a few of the many facts of this hellscape (the skin crawls in an interview with bulldozer drivers who talk without remorse of the sleeping people they’ve accidentally crushed or buried alive in the course of their job). Yula experiences some of these things directly; some of them happen to her friends. But they all happen, all the time.
Something Better to Come is more than a film about the homeless. It’s a look at humanity itself stripped down to its basics, which include survival but also, touchingly, companionship, cooperation and affection. It will shake you and give you hope at the same time. It is one of the best films I’ve seen this year.