Something Better To Come is an extraordinary, thirteen-year personal journey set in one of the bleakest urban places in the world: a large “svalka” (garbage dump) just 13 miles away from Red Square, Moscow. People struggle to live there, including eleven-year-old Yula, our protagonist. We follow Yula until she is twenty-five. Yula’s dream seems to be quite ordinary, but in this society, almost impossible to fulfill: she dreams of getting out of the dump one day. But in spite of the terrible conditions there, life goes on. People still laugh, love, support and help each other in the face of horrible adversity. They still longingly hope that one day their life will change for the better. Yula loses her father, she falls in love, gets pregnant, and gives her child up for adoption. Finally one day she breaks out and leaves the garbage dump in search of a new life, a normal life.
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Background Story & Plot Synopsis
Russia and the ex-Soviet Union remain in the news. Corruption is on the rise as evidenced by the recent headline: “Russian general flushes 75,000 euros of bribe money through the toilet while police are breaking down his door. . . .” This is happening hand-in-hand with increasing reports that Russia is becoming a “mafia-run state.” Alcoholism in general an intractable feature of the Russian constitution, and vodka consumption in particular looks to be reaching runaway proportions. Out-of-control real estate investment threatens important historical buildings (recently Dostoyevsky’s birthplace has been destroyed, seemingly to make place for a skyscraper), and apparently no one cares or has the power to intervene.
Additionally, the gap between Russia’s insanely rich and its most miserably poor continues to widen at an alarming rate. So much so, that according to Russia’s governmental statistics agency Rosstat, 13 percent of Russia’s population lives in poverty. This equates to 18.1 million people; a large percentage of which are children. Many of them end up on the street or—in our case—in the dump. Despite the dedicated work of various NGOs and state agencies, this problem is pervasive throughout the world, and the global economic crisis we are currently experiencing serves to further exacerbate it.
And Moscow is booming.
Moscow, a “megacity” with a population of 11,514,330 people (2010 Census), is the largest city in Russia, the most populated city in Europe and the sixth largest city in the world. According to Forbes magazine (2011), Moscow has the largest community of billionaires in the world. And billionaires—as well as everyday people—produce garbage… millions and millions of tons of garbage . . .
Only eighteen kilometers from Moscow’s Kremlin and Red Square, just outside of the beltway, MKAD, we find the svalka. This, the largest garbage dump in Europe, is where our story takes place. It is a fenced-in, walled-off area where no one is allowed entry—except for its garbage trucks, which come and go with a chillingly robotic regularity. And yet people manage to live here, an estimated one thousand of them, the poorest of the poor, the most destitute of Russia’s underclass. The svalka is where they end up when they have nowhere else to go; their last stop. The only other option – is death.
The svalka is “forbidden territory”—it is vast and immense. It is a place where no one picks up your body when you die (in fact, tractors often bury people alive here), if you get hurt in a knife-fight, there is no doctor to tend to your wounds . . . and even if you are able to call someone for help, they won’t come. The dump is a place where the police is not summoned if a woman is raped. Ethnic strife is rampant: Men from Tajikistan are pitted against Russians or illegal immigrants from various parts of the former Soviet republics.
And it is here, at this massive garbage dump, the svalka, that we meet Yula, a 10-year old girl. This film, Yula’s Dream, is an extraordinary, thirteen-year personal journey that begins in the year 2000, the very year that Vladymir Putin is elected president of the country for the first time. We meet Yula, when she is 10 years old and follow her with our camera until she is twenty-three and finally able to extricate herself from the svalka’s death grip.
In Yula’s world, a beautiful ten-year-old girl is vulnerable and can be raped or killed at any time. Our Yula has never heard of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, nor has she heard of the Women’s Rights Movement. Brought to the dump by her parents, Yula grows up on the largest mountain of garbage in all of Europe. Seventeen stories high and over a mile long. She lives behind its fence and concrete. Officially she doesn’t exist; the outside world couldn’t care less about her.
Very soon after Yula and her parents arrive at the dump, Yula’s father is detained in a prison for the homeless where he contracts tuberculosis and dies. Her mother is lost to a bottle of vodka.
From here on out, Yula grows up on her own, in a world rife with poverty, despair, and decay. And yet she dreams, she laughs, she falls in love . . . she dyes her hair and puts on makeup to look beautiful. She cracks jokes, listens to music, and reads magazines found in piles at the dump — so she knows what is going on in the outside world — a world she can only dream of and glance at, from a distance, from her enormous mountain of trash. Children play with the toys found amongst the garbage. They grow up and come of age in these very strange and cruel conditions that their world of the svalka dishes out to them. The beautiful and gleaming city of Moscow beckons from afar, its lights and splendor on the other side of the fence winking cheeky opulence to the depraved denizens of the dump. We witness these dump-denizens over a period of many years, and get very close to them and get to know them as a group of amazing, warm, funny characters.
The svalka is Yula’s country and it has its own set of rules and laws. As we follow her life, we discover this strange country where a bottle of vodka is currency, where corrupt police keep journalists and charity workers out in order that the dump’s criminal activities can continue unchecked. This is a country where everyone is a doctor when people get sick, give birth, and sometimes cut off their own limbs or toes when they freeze to avoid gangrene. Life here is grim and depraved, but it also brings out the best in people as they share their last nub of bread and open the doors of the small huts they call home, even—or especially—in the cold Arctic nights. It’s a place where Yula and her friends share the same fate—a primeval struggle for survival—and where the only thing left is the enduring human bond.
Against the backdrop of the dump and the state of life in Russia as a whole, we witness a larger story: that of the strength of a relationship between a mother and a daughter. Yula’s dynamic with her mother Tania is very compelling. Throughout the thirteen years that we track Yula with our camera, their relationship changes: As Yula matures, she begins to act like her mother’s parent and her mother acts like the daughter. In other words, a role reversal is affected. Yula has had to grow up very quickly, not only to extricate herself from her grim surroundings, but to ensure her mother’s survival as well.
Our story depicts a courageous young girl who takes her destiny into her own hands. It offers a unique look at daring and deeply personal success in the face of a dauntingly hopeless scenario and, in so doing, presents a different perspective. It shares with its audience fresh insights into the attributes of creativity, intelligence, persistence, intuition, love, true grit, and self-realization, all of which are required for one to break out of the heart of darkness—whatever or wherever that heart of darkness might be. Yula’s Dream is a thirteen-year odyssey about hope realized: one incredibly plucky girl’s journey from the depths of despair to the ultimate pinnacle of victory.
This is a story of the universality of poverty and inequality. A story of how even in the powerful nation of Russia, right next to it’s capitol where some of the richest people in the world are found, we find people who have to live in a dump. But it is also a story of finding joy and the ability to dream and want for more even in the most unlikely of places. And how children excel at this skill.
Yula’s Dream is intended to be a truly uplifting story and a very vibrant film, deeply philosophical and humanistic, but also featuring a sense of humor and tensile strength. In this, it is a metaphor for the journey of life, and the courage and fortitude to overcome the obstacles it puts in our path. It is a film about human dignity and resilience.
For 14 years I have been following Yula and the other characters that surround her in the dump, and I have witnessed hopes and dreams where you least expect to find it. It has been an important journey for me personally to follow my protagonists’ lives and seeing their strength and will to live in spite of the awful living conditions at the dump. I believe there is an important story to be told about human capability.
The personality of the amazing, strong and funny characters and Yula’s exceptional charisma are in large contrast to the wretched home of the dump, and therefore I want this film to be an uplifting story with a very vibrant expression. I even include poetic moments revealing people’s dreams, hopes, fantasies, and the intimate stories they share.
“Something better to come” also has a deep philosophical and social dimension to the viewer, which is illustrated in a quote from Maxim Gorky from his play The Lower Depths: “Everyone, my friend, lives for something better to come”. My experience with following Yula and her life at the dump, and her way out of it, has made be obsessed with the idea that only those who fight and take action can win, and in so doing, can celebrate victory. By utilizing discipline and wise judgment and tenacity, we can overcome our difficulties and influence our destiny for the better.
– Hanna Polak
MORE ABOUT DIRECTOR – Hanna Polak
Hanna Polak (1967), an Oscar-nominated director, graduated from the Cinematography Division of the Cinematography Institute of the Russian Federation. She worked on various movies as producer, director, cinematographer and still photographer. In 2002, she was awarded Best Producer of Documentary and Short Fiction Movies in Poland for Railway Station Ballad. In 2004 she completed work on The Children of Leningradsky in collaboration with HBO. The movie received an Oscar nomination (2005), an IDA Award, two Emmy nominations, and the Gracie Allen Award among others. Hanna has been advocating the case of homeless children all over the world. She founded and collaborated with Active Child Aid foundation and collaborates with UNICEF.
Cinematographer: The Officer’s Wife (2010)
Cinematographer & Director: Warsaw Battle 1920 in 3D (2010)
Cinematographer & Director: Faces of Homelessness (2010)
Cinematographer: Kamienna Cisza (2007)
Cinematographer, Producer & Director: The Children of Leningradsky (2005)
Cinematographer, Producer & Director: A Tribute to Albert Maysles (2004)
Cinematographer, Producer: Dworcowa Ballade (2003)
FESTIVALS & AWARDS
2014 International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, Netherlands
Won Special Jury Award
2015 Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, Greece
2015 Trieste Film Festival, Italy
Won Alpe Adria Cinema Award for Best Documentary
2015 Art DocFest Moscow, Russia
Won Grand Prix Award
2015 Zagreb Dox, Croatia
Won Special Mention
2015 FIFDH, Switzerland
Won Youth Jury Price for Best Creative Documentary
2015 EuroDok, Norway
Won Jury Award for Best Documentary
2015 One World Festival, Belgium
Won Special Mention
2015 Documenta Madrid
Won Second Price of the Jury
2015 Doc.fest Munich, Germany
2015 Docs Against Gravity, Poland
Won Millennium Award for Best Feature Documentary
Won Canon Non-Fiction Frame – Special Mention for Photography
2015 Favourites Film Festival, Germany
Won Favourite Award
2015 Underhill Festival, Montenegro
Won Special Mention
2015 Andrey Tarkovsky International Film Festival, Russia
Won Special Award
2015 Gdańsk DocFilm Festival, Poland
Won Best Cinematography Award
2015 Documentary Edge Festival, New Zealand
Won Best International Feature Award
2015 Valetta Film Festival, Malta
Won Best Documentary Award
2015 Pärnu International Documentary and Anthropology Film Festival, Estonia
Won Estonian People’s Choice Award
PRESS & REVIEWS
“As remarkable as it is tragic. Eye-opening.”
ONE WOMAN ARMY.CA
“Eye-opening. Sequences of spectacularly dystopian-apocalyptic, third-world bleakness are leavened by moments of incongruous beauty, even grace.”
Neil Young, HOLLYWOOD REPORTER
“A strikingly visceral and plaintively moving documentary that is arresting right from its first powerful moments.”
Mark Adams, SCREEN DAILY
“The impact of this documentary is immediate and shocking. Takes us into a setting that is so difficult to understand…that it may as well be a post apocalyptic one. Feels very real throughout. A delightful discovery of a tight knit community whose solidarity in this nightmare called life is truly heartwarming.”
Matt Micucci, CINECOLA
“My most powerful experience of nonfiction cinema this year was Something Better to Come.”
Joshua Oppenheimer, maker of The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence in THE GUARDIAN