Cateura is a slum community of ramshackle dwellings erected alongside (and built with materials from) a garbage dump in Asunción, Paraguay. Many of the inhabitants are referred to as people who comb through the refuse looking for valuable materials to sell. The dump and the village occupy a precarious spot within the historical floodplain of the Paraguay River.
Favio Chávez came to Cateura for a recycling project, which didn’t pan out. But he stuck around, dedicating his efforts to a different plan. “When I was young, music was the first thing that gave me a sense of purpose,” Chávez recalls in the Kickstarter-funded documentary “Thus I decided to teach music to the children of the gancheros.”
But how do you learn to play music without instruments? The poverty depicted in Cateura is at a level that the average American hasn’t encountered. Most of the houses are more like encampments. Animals wander freely from the garbage-lined creek beds, through the vines and tropical vegetation that choke the winding paths, and in and out of the spaces inhabited by Chávez’s young students and their families. “We had a few instruments that people had donated,” the instructor says, but “Cateura is not a safe place to have a violin. In fact, a violin is worth more than a house.”
Enter Nicolás “Cola” Gómez, a ganchero with experience in woodworking. He starts working with Chávez to construct instruments from reclaimed refuse. An old oil drum forms the body of a cello. Discarded X-ray film serves as the skin of a drum. Gómez bends the tines of a fork to form the tailpiece of a violin, connecting strings to each one. And little by little, Chávez begins teaching local children to play these instruments in a performing ensemble — the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura.
At this point you may be thinking, OK, the angle here is obvious. Inspirational movie tells inspirational story about man inspired to help kids in tough circumstances by inspiring them to play music. Inspiringly. And yes, this is the beginning of the story, but it’s not the end of it. Not by a long shot. We haven’t even gotten to the part where the kids from Cateura meet the members of Megadeth.
Obviously, there are growing pains along the way. Learning to play the violin isn’t easy — for the student or for anyone within earshot. (I can vouch for this personally, judging from my family’s reaction to my ill-considered brush with the instrument in the early 1980s.) The young musicians featured most prominently in the film are violinists, and they persevere through a very tough learning curve on the way toward proficiency. The ensemble’s sound starts out screechy and raw, and eventually coalesces into something more distinctly musical, but an element of wildness remains, at least in the performances shown here.
co-directors Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley present this story plainly and directly, letting the human relationships at the heart of the film speak for themselves. We see bonds form and strengthen between the musicians, their families, and one another. Chávez is the orchestrator of the whole project but makes no effort to claim the spotlight, steering the kids through musical and social quandaries alike with rock-solid calm and humility. He’s something of a life coach as well as a music instructor. (“Play without fear. Never be afraid to play!”) Above all, he emphasizes the power of opportunity, and it seems to infect everyone he encounters.
The most exhilarating part of is seeing the children grow in confidence and enthusiasm as the orchestra brings new and exciting possibilities to their lives and into their community. Chávez notes that he came up with the orchestra project because he feared that the children of the gancheros were destined to become gancheros themselves. Watching dogs, chickens, and pigs make their way through the mud and detritus, and seeing the plants straining toward the sunlight, it seems clear that life will always find a way. And where there is life, there is music.
A simple but profound statement comes from Tania Vera, one of the violinists: “Without music, my life would be meaningless.” This could just as easily have been said by anyone, regardless of their circumstances. I was reminded of the words of Frank Zappa — specifically, a few lines from “Packard Goose,” from the coarse and bizarre rock opera
“Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is the best.” — Jeff Acker