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Documenting a Disappearing Way of Life

NU-Q journalism students venture to Rio to report on problems of rapid urbanization

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September 20, 2012 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- For four Medill students at Northwestern University in Qatar a trip to Rio de Janeiro this summer was not about long, leisurely days on that city’s world-renowned beaches but about days that often started at dawn atop huge mountains of garbage.

The student team was in Brazil for two weeks with Assistant Professor Andrew Mills as part of his mega-city field reporting class. In Brazil’s second largest city, they worked on a film documentary about Rio’s “catadores,” the men and women who -- in a country where the concept of recycling at the source is in its infancy -- eke out a living at the Gericino garbage dump by picking through refuse for recyclable plastic and metal.

But the “catadores” are a dying breed as Rio plans to close its remaining official open-air landfills by 2014 and replace them with more modern and “greener” treatment facilities. The city recently closed the Gramacho dump -- a 60-million ton mountain of trash and one of the world’s largest open-air landfills -- after more than three decades of operation.

“Catador,” the students’ 23-minute documentary, follows veteran garbage pickers Eva and Custodio as they lead the fight to secure a future for Gericino’s estimated 500 trash pickers.

The mega-city reporting class results from Mills’ own work on urbanization and the rapid growth of cities, particularly in Asia and Africa. A journalist who has covered news on five continents, he expects stories on urbanization to be among the biggest international stories of the 21st century.

Mills asked his students to pinpoint an urban problem that Rio’s local government was trying to solve and to then use it as a starting point for a story. “Brazil is at the tail end of its urbanization, but the persistent problems of Brazil’s cities can provide cautionary tales for audiences in Africa and Asia’s rapidly urbanizing cities,” he said.

The student team had help from Medill alumna Juliana Tafur, a Rio de Janeiro-based filmmaker and producer. Tafur has produced documentaries for National Geographic (including one on garbage pickers in Guatemala) and a documentary about the lives of Egypt’s Sudanese refugees that is used by human rights activists and educators in three continents.

They also were assisted by Northwestern in Qatar alumna and Rio native Camila Ferreira and Medill student Fabiano Leal, who is interning at Brazilian media giant TV Globo.

Mahdiyeh Mahmoodzadeh, who finished her freshman year before leaving for Rio, was impressed by the work ethic and motivation of the trash pickers she filmed. The summer experience in Brazil increased her desire to do investigative reporting and help “unheard voices to be heard,” she said.

Mahmmodzadeh and NU-Q seniors Sidra Ayub and Salima Al Ismaili and junior Zena Al Tahhan recently completed post-production work on “Catador” in Qatar. The work will be screened at NU-Q later this fall and submitted to international film festivals for distribution.