Polish filmmaker Hanna Polak’s Something Better to Come is certainly not the first documentary to take place at a garbage landfill. Lucy Walker’s Waste Land followed a community of Brazilian garbage pickers in Rio de Janeiro, engaged in an art project of Brazilian sculptor and photographer Vic Muniz’s design. But where art proposed to trump fate in Walker’s film, aiming to partly mend the lives of some of the dump workers (Muniz built a school for the community), life as depicted in Polak’s startling documentary must field for itself.
Polak’s main protagonist is the 11-year-old Yula, who lives with her mom at the Svalka, Europe’s largest landfill, located little over 10 miles from Moscow. The film spans over 10 years as Yula grows from the pretty, shy girl to a teenager with pimply skin and loudly painted hair, to then a stout, tried young woman of 23. This may sound average, but Yula’s environment turns even the most basic daily routines into a continuous, desperate struggle against hunger and illness. Polak scrupulously captures the precarious conditions of living at the dump; with no basic comforts, Yula washes out the paint of her hair with freezing-cold water, till her fingers and skull go numb. There are shots of gangrened, frostbitten limbs of other residents, and plenty of stark imagery of persistent cold and filth that surround them.
Yet Something Better to Come is about people foremost. We learn that, through bizarre vagaries of fate, Yula’s mother lost her apartment when Yula’s father died. Papers went missing, and she could not register for another place. Early on, speaking directly to the camera, an older woman from the mother’s circle remarks bitterly how, when she’s in public, people look at her as if she were a louse. There are echoes here of both Vladimir Mayakovsky’s The Bedbug and Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (the latter inspired the film’s title).
In mostly observational style, ranging from landscape shots of the landfill to intimate close-ups of its inhabitants, Something Better to Come balances delicately between, on one hand, the interviews with the garbage pickers who decry Vladimir Putin’s boasts of progress in the midst of persistent misery, and, on the other hand, the more impressionist sequences that illuminate the spirit of Yula’s close-knit circle (mostly by listening in on private conversations, or on boisterous political songs and jokes). In one heartbreaking scene, a semi-illiterate man dictates a strikingly poised letter to his sister who cast him away, showing that psychological wounds cut deeper than most physical hardship.
Polak doesn’t show us much of Moscow, except for the garbage trucks in the context of a serene, opulent street during Christmas. Yet the repeated evocations of the city, a mecca for the glitzy rich, are enough to conjure up the abysmal chasm between the new consumerist Russia and the brutal realities of the dump. The shaken-camera movement as Polak sneaks into the dump, which we’re told in voiceover is heavily guarded, and the confrontations throughout, with the locals who didn’t wish Polak to film, remind us of the secrecy that surrounds the landfill.
On a rare occasion, Polak leaves the site and Yula altogether, such as when she records the siege by Chechyan separatists of Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater. In one particularly chilling shot, the camera captures a body slumped incongruently onto the seat of an empty bus, and the image resonates with the cruel randomness of death that haunts the landfill. Polak returns to the dump to question its residents about what they think of the siege, but the transition feels more justified by a metaphorical parallel; we may recall that during the Russian rescue mission gas was pumped into the theater, and that the aftermath was over a hundred civilian deaths. At the theater, as at the dump, human life proves unbearably light.
With a few painterly strokes, Polak’s camera powerfully evokes the dump’s hellish dimension. Ominous vapors rise above the garbage heaps, starved dogs sniff the garbage for a random chance of something to eat, and at one point we even see a bared human skull. In another horrifying shot, a man casually stretches plastic over a body extended on the ground; we don’t know if the person is sleeping, or dead. Meanwhile, tractors ruthlessly comb and crush the waste, threatening to kill anyone who falls asleep amid the trash.
Within these surroundings, Yula’s emotional life swings like a pendulum. At times, it’s full of joy, such as when playing outdoors with her friends, who carelessly thrash in the mud. But it’s also increasingly marked by alcoholism; following in her mother’s footsteps, Yula takes to drinking in early adolescence. The bonds of friendship are strong, but tinged with external threats. In one of the film’s heartbreaking scenes, Yula’s mother appears at their shack at night, announcing that she’s been raped. Anguish registers in Yula’s eyes, and words that either went unspoken as Yula recoiled in shock, or which Polak omitted, form a haunting ellipsis. Another terrible blow comes when Yula and her mother try to escape the dump, by living with Yula’s grandfather, only to suffer his persistent abuse.
If the film’s overall resonance is stark, Yula’s story takes a surprisingly positive turn. Though she becomes pregnant and must give up her first baby for adoption, eventually, through a fortuitous twist, Yula gets a new apartment. She finds work and leaves the dump, taking her mother with her. She even starts a new family. In this sense, the leitmotif of Yula’s repetitive dreaming of a better life is fully realized. But as Yula shows off her second newborn in the hospital window, we can’t quite shake off the weight of her previous losses. Polak makes sure to splice in the interviews with the residents at the dump, and it’s the misery of the ones left behind, as much as Yula’s success, that haunt us.