Reviews Short Documentary

From Trash to Treasure: Turning Negatives into Positives in Lesotho (2020) – 4 stars

Director: Iara Lee

Writer: Iara Lee

Running time: 25mins

Activist filmmaker Iara Lee returns to Indy Film Library with another documentary that has all the hallmarks of her earlier work. It focuses on an often-overlooked enclave of humanity, as it struggles to find new ways to survive amid against all the odds. It explores the role that art and culture play in that survival. It features a title long enough to enrage any graphic designer tasked with fitting it on a promotional poster.

Honestly, it is great to see Lee still committed to what she does best on the other side of the two turbulent years since IFL last encountered her work. In a world riddled with injustices, where crises are repeatedly compartmentalised by the media into decontextualised statistical traumas, the type of movies she makes are ever more important.  

From Trash to Treasure: Turning Negatives into Positives in Lesotho focuses on the collective efforts of people to survive and thrive, even as they are economically and politically neglected by the country’s elite. The film charts the lives of artists, farmers, musicians, activists and educators as they look to give their communities the best possible chance of a dignified and happy life.

Over the course of just 25 minutes, Lee manages to provide insight into a huge number of cultural and social projects. Her camera documents the efforts of artists making use of ‘trash’ as sustainable materials for sculptures, or scavenging charcoal from campfires for drawing with. She finds local farmers who are growing organic crops to feed their communities food without the ‘poison’ of pesticides found in the budget food that is available to them; while providing a communal space for musicians looking to create.

We hear the amazing traditional music of a number of bands who create instruments from salvaged materials – and a new generation of politicised hip-hop artists promoting pride in their culture. And we see a hardworking group of LGBT+ activists fighting for recognition and respect, while an inspirational educational collective looks to boost knowledge of sexually transmitted diseases in a community where many people turn to sex-work to survive.

This is all remarkable stuff – and serves to provide evidence that even in the most marginalised and poverty-stricken parts of the world, people can come together to build a better life for each other against all the odds. If it can be true in Lesotho, it can be true anywhere. There is a ‘but’ coming, though.

The power of this message is, arguably, rendered less impactful, because From Trash to Treasure leaves us with as many questions as it does answers. One of the matters I am yet to see resolved in a film which preaches the virtues of turning ‘trash’ to ‘treasure’ as a means for positive social change, is what the philosophy’s proponents think will happen when capitalists realise their offcuts have become a commodity too.

For example, the television chefs who campaign for more of their predominantly white, middle class people fandom to use offal – usually visiting working class, ethnic kitchens to illustrate the ethical and edible benefits of its use. But as more affluent consumers take them up on this offer, offal prices are skyrocketing – making it less accessible for the communities who proved its usefulness in the first place – because farmers and butchers realise, they can charge a new demographic of monied, conscientious consumers more for the ‘trash’ that has become ‘treasure’. Similarly, if more people from beyond the communities of this film create demand by asking businesses and individuals for their unwanted ‘trash’ to produce art, or build houses, how do we prevent this eventually making garbage as unaffordable as any other raw material? This all takes more than a simple market solution. But it also takes longer to answer than a 25-minute short – so maybe I am being unfair in expecting as much.

What does seem reasonable to expect, however, is for the film to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of Lesotho’s history. Ignoring my pernickety splitting of hairs in my previous point, many more of the questions we are left with after the film ends actually relate to this far simpler point.

Surrounded entirely by South Africa, Lesotho is a mountainous country situated in the Maloti Mountains, with a population of around 3 million people. The country has struggled with the legacies of colonialism since it gained independence from the British Empire in 1966, leading to high unemployment, economic collapse, a weak currency and poor travel documents restricting movement – while it also has one of the world’s highest rates of HIV among its population.

It might have been helpful to include a bit more of this context in the film itself. I accept that the primary mode is to show how the people of Lesotho are trying to create better lives for themselves, without waiting for the powers that be to come and help them. But for an audience from outside their cultural, political sphere, we need it spelled out a little more why they have been left to their own devices in such a way.

Without these context clues, some of the stories on screen are less impactful than they might have been. Sometimes, this is to the extent that they feel like afterthoughts. The testimony of activist artist Meshu Mokitimi, for example, closes out the film – before a wall of text explains who he is and why he is important here. Mokimi spent 11 years in prison for his protests against colonialism in Lesotho, we are told. “His legacy is an inspiration to today’s youth struggling against corruption and social injustice,” the text concludes, before the final credits roll.

Hindsight is a marvellous thing, of course, and I have no idea how long Lee and her team had with Mokimi, or what he might have even been willing to talk about. But it seems like his testimony might have been a better starting point for the film, giving us a historical context of Lesotho’s modern issues, before giving further testimony throughout the movie as a framing device. His concluding statement, “If the youth stand on the side of righteousness, they can face any odd or threat”, might in that context be a good deal more authoritative.

With all that being said, Iara Lee has still crafted a compelling documentary on a part of the world many viewers will be unfamiliar with. At the same time, considering so many filmmakers who make the trip to a nation in Africa are determined to put their own views front and centre, it is worthy of praise that she puts the stories of the people she met in Lesotho front and centre, in their own terms. Whether or not I think it might have been better steered in terms of that content, the film keeps a level of sincerity and authenticity that it might well have lost if the grubby fingerprints of an over-zealous editor like me had been left all over the final product.

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