The emotional power and authenticity of documentarian Hanna Polak’s Something Better to Come cannot be underestimated. In addressing the desperate lifestyle of a small community living in the Svalka, Europe’s largest landfill, the film’s territory could quickly veer into pity-inducing voyeurism. However, as a result of her fourteen-year dedication to the documentary’s subjects, she builds an invaluable relationship with them that instead enables a humanising exploration of their lives.
The viewer is first introduced to Yula, the film’s protagonist, at age eleven. Polak’s discerning eye depicts the duality of her existence as a young girl living in the Svalka landfill. Her concerns aren’t just limited to the struggle of everyday living – she’s seen applying make-up, she’s seen playing with friends. Similar to her 2005 work, The Children of Leningradsky, Polak approaches the entire film in this manner. She isn’t interested in a tokenistic and distanced portrayal of Yula and her community. Instead, over the course of several years, the despair of daily needs are complemented with desires, dreams, harsh realities, pragmatism, resilience, humour.
Her scope of subjects is similarly broad: Yula’s mother, friends, neighbours and others from the community are also given voices within the documentary. It quickly becomes clear that Polak has invested herself in the film and its subjects, and established a mutual trust that extends to friendship. This proves fundamental to the film, allowing the documentary to evolve into three-dimensional storytelling. Polak’s voice is noticeably almost absent, except when she replies to a comment or question posed by one of the Svalka residents. Their voices, however, are placed front and centre, and thus they shape the film’s representation of their lives. Insight comes from this unscripted, intimate environment in which the residents express themselves through Polak’s camera. Even as several of the residents toast to their own survival and resilience, it’s evident that Polak captures these moments through her friendship with and story-telling commitment to their community. As such, scenes and images of desperation and struggle don’t serve simply as voyeurism for more privileged film-goers. What proves significant is their own self-proclaimed desire for a better life.
The film’s visuals echo this close bond between Polak and the Svalka community. Use of incidental lighting – such as cigarette lighters and candles inside a dim make-shift shelter – and close-ups contribute a naturalistic feeling reminiscent of much fly-on-the-wall filmmaking.1 Spanning several years, the film’s chronological structure steers it away from gimmicky editing – poignant moments are instead inserted as brief cutaways of Svalka life. As the film follows Yula, new concerns and preoccupations arise. At sixteen, she falls pregnant and is confronted with the reality of raising a baby in the landfill. Other issues, including her grandfather’s abusive behaviour and her teenage pregnancy, are treated with similar consideration and care. The film here nods back to other similar documentary work, such as the renowned 7 Up series. In the end, Yula and her boyfriend have left Svalka and created a better life for themselves, but Polak consciously stays clear of a saccharine ending. Just as her representation of Svalka makes clear the residents’ desire to leave for something better, images of Yula’s new life aren’t enough to erase her origins.
Polak does well to balance the filmmaker/subject dynamic. Ultimately, it’s this humanistic and intimate approach that permits her film to be as emotionally affecting yet three-dimensional and respectful a portrayal as it is. While lesser documentaries would prove a simplistic indictment of the conditions that lead to people living in such conditions, Polak’s focus importantly gives a voice to those people.