The Mountain Thief
Set in the Payatas area of Manila, a section of the Philippines known for being the world’s largest garbage-collecting settlement, The Mountain Thief is a fictional tale created out of a real life issue. After fleeing the war-torn south region of the Philippines, Julio and his handicapped son Igo settle in Payatas hoping to make enough money to return home when the war is over. In the poverty stricken Payatas, Julio and his boy work as scavengers on the mountain of garbage collecting anything that can be turned in for cash (e.g. bottles, cans, scrap irons, etc.). Julio’s presence, and rising popularity, threatens Ato’s chances for becoming the next leader of the region. Ato claims to be a man of the bible, yet many believe that he is actually insane. Ato has never been the same since his mother was buried alive beneath the trash. The tension between Julio and Ato boils over with horrific consequences.
The Mountain Thief is one of the few films in recent years that actually brought me close to tears. I still get choked up a bit when I reflect on it. This is not due to the story itself per say, but the folks who were involved with the making of it. Director Gerry Balasta casts real life scavengers from the region to star in his film. At the end of the film Balasta provides brief bios for this cast. It is heart-wrenching to see that most of the actors have been scavengers since the age of 10 or 12 years-old. They were born into the life and have had to make the best of the situation. Many are saving up to afford things that we take for granted in North America, such as education and medical care. Two of the boys featured in the film had never had a medical examination until Gerry Balasta and his team help to raise money via the internet.
The thing that impressed me the most about the film was how Balasta managed to get such strong performances from his inexperienced cast. While there are a few uneven moments here and there, the overall job by the cast is far better than you would expect from amateurs. Part of this is due to Balasta choice to tell the story from each characters point of view. Not only does it give the actors just enough screen but it also enhances the overall impact of the story. The film jumps from character to character to fill in the missing gaps in the story. Only the glue sniffing thief Simon knows what is truly going on in the area. The lack of information residing in the other characters leads to dire results. One of the most tense scenes arrives when Julio contemplates doing the unthinkable. Gerry Balasta draws out this sequence as long as possible to keep us, the viewer on edge.
To emphasis the decay of Payatas, Gerry Balasta film occasionally has a burnt look to it. This really gives the sense that the viewer is wading through the trash just like the main characters. Balasta uses a softer lens when he focuses on the children’s perspective of things. This technique not only provides an angelic feel but also gives an overall sense of hope. Whether or not the conditions in Payatas will ever be fixed is anyone’s guess. Which is why a film like The Mountain Thief is so important; it sheds light on an issue that most of us could never imagine having to live in. The Mountain Thief is a film that is not to be missed.
For more information about the living conditions of Payatas visit the films website www.mountainthief.com and the Facebook site.