Behind the scenes of “Héroes Cotidianos” – Interview with German filmmaker Tobias Hluchnik

Medellín. Only a couple of days after its launch, thousands of people have already seen the documentary “Heroes Cotidianos” (Everyday heroes), produced by German filmmaker Tobias Hluchnik. We wanted to know more about him and his reasons for giving a voice to recyclers in the city of Medellin, so we met with him for an interview.

Interview conducted by Jennifer Guerra Montenegro.

Jennifer Guerra Montenegro: Hi, Tobias. First of all, thank you very much for your time. Only a few days after its launch, more than 10,000 people have already seen your short film Heroes Cotidianos. Many people responded with very positive comments. Did you expect such a reaction?

Tobias Hluchnik: Thank you very much for having me here! To be honest, no. It was a very interesting project for me and I enjoyed it to the fullest. We put a lot of effort and time into it, and when we saw the result, we were very happy, because we achieved what was the initial idea: To give a true voice to recyclers, people who usually don’t have much of a choice to make themselves heard. Although, I wasn’t really expecting that this project and the underlying topic interested so many people; so that fills me with intense happiness.

Jennifer: Tell us, please, what was your intention with this documentary? What led you to do it?

Tobias: I arrived in Medellín in February to live here for 6 months and do my internship at Dcada, a local startup company here in the city. During that time, right on the street where I lived, many nights I saw our recycler going by with his cart and it somehow caught my attention. It was not exactly clear to me what he was doing, also because in my home country, Germany, recycling works differently.

Finally, one night I dared to ask him about what he did and what his story was. He told me that his name was Henrique and that recycling was his actual job. He told me he was working with an official association and had a house and a family. That changed my perception completely. During the following weeks I began to see more recyclers throughout the city; I approached them, talked to them and began to understand that, as a society, we are totally mistaken on our understanding of their work. I decided to change that by making a documentary in which they would talk, share their stories and tell us about their work.

Picture: Julio is one of the main characters in Tobias’ documentary about recyclers. Screenshot from the movie “Héroes Cotidianos”

Jennifer: During the process, what was the most complex thing about your relationship with recyclers?

Tobias: At first it was not very easy for me to earn their trust. Of course, the first step was to meet some recyclers and chat; that went well for me. But as soon as I asked them if I could record them for a documentary, the dynamic changed a lot: many refused an interview and told me they preferred not to appear in the documentary. Others said yes, but when I asked them the same questions as before, this time for the camera, the answers were very different: suddenly they only mentioned positive aspects of their work, that they overall got good support and that there were no problems. I got the impression that they were afraid of being controlled or even sanctioned if they told me the truth.

I decided to put more effort into explaining that the purpose of the documentary was to show the perspective of the recyclers themselves, and that the project was completely independent any of public entity whatsoever. It was at that point when some recyclers opened up much more, like Julio, whose answers we appreciated very much so at the end he became one fundamental part of the film.

Jennifer: What do you think about the life that the recyclers described? Based on what they shared with you, what do you think is the most important change they want in their profession?

Tobias: What surprised me the most while learning about recyclers is their ability to work. Many of them stay in the streets for 14 hours straight, 6 days a week. It is also impressive how their brains work as like scales combined with calculators: for any material, they can tell you exactly its weight and worth the day they want to sell it. They are just impressive.

We must also consider, if we want to understand how difficult it is to be a recycler, that they generally live far away from the city center. From their homes, they first have to walk to a place where they claim their cart, which in most cases is rented. Then they walk to the neighborhood where they will actually separate their recycling that night. In the morning, they walk another few kilometers to the points of delivery of the material, return the cart and go back home to their barrios to rest. Needless to emphasize that this results in a labor organization that is quite poorly structured and inefficient.

Henrique is a recycler from Medellín. Screenshot from the movie “Héroes Cotidianos”

But what is worst for them, and this I heard from each one of the recyclers I interviewed, is that, even though they are performing in the way I just explained and even though all of us prfit from their work, people treat them as if they were drug addicts; many use the appearance of recyclers as an excuse for not helping even with the most basic things, such as separating their waste in the way Julio explains in the video.

Jennifer: You are from Germany, and you already told me that recycling works differently there: What important differences do you notice between our countries regarding the dynamics of this or other occupations with a low reputation?

Tobias: In Germany, all waste is separated by obligation. In every household, we have bags of different colors for organic waste, plastic, glass and cardboard. If you don’t comply, they fine you. This is something that began in the 90s and resulted in the separation of waste being part of the citizen culture today; so what I can say is that it seems to be a very successful tool. The collection of these different bags are being done by state-owned companies, so trash pickers in Germany are not seen in the same way as recyclers here in Colombia.

On the other hand, in Germany there is a special deposit system for beverage packaging. For example, any can of an energy drink can be worth up to 25 EUR cents ($0.30 US). This law was established in 2000. Consequently, there is a fraction of the poor population in Germany whose occupation is collecting plastic bottles or cans with deposit values and their delivery to supermarkets where they can receive the deposit money for it. This is an occupation that, in the end, is very similar to that of the Colombian recycler, because it also involves being in the streets and ransacking trash bins to find materials to sell.

Picture: Recycler and his cart in San Juan street in Medellín, Colombia. Screenshot from the movie “Héroes Cotidianos”.

Jennifer: I understand. To finish this interview, we would like to know what your projects are for the future. Can we expect more movies from you, maybe about other everyday heroes or showing in greater detail the life of the recyclers?

Tobias: Making movies has always been my passion. I have done short films about travels I made, about skating and some other subjects. I think filming and editing are things that I will always do in my life.

“Heroes Cotidianos” was my first documentary and so far has been my most complex work. I loved working with recyclers. The project inspired me a lot and I already have many ideas for other documentaries that I plan to do in the future.

Soon I will start a master’s degree in Barcelona, Spain. One idea I have is to work on a comparison between recycling in Spain and everything I learned here in Colombia. I am very motivated, so let’s see what it’s gonna be!

Jennifer: Sounds exciting! We wish you a lot of success and thank you very much for the interview.

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