Published: 13 May 2010
by DAN CARRIER
PHNOM Penh, the ancient capital of Cambodia: from a distance, it looks like a city with volcanoes on its outskirts.
Fires buried deep beneath mountains smoulder. Plumes of smoke escape and ring the summits with a murky haze.
It is not until you get closer that you realise the rocky outcrops of this bustling Asian city are nothing of the sort.
They are disgusting, giant, piles of rubbish.
And while the size of them is shocking enough, it has another, even more horrifying secret: the dumps are alive with young people.
Children have made them their home. They pick through the waste to find anything of value and then crouch at night under scraps of cloth.
One of these landfill sites, which includes waste shipped there from Europe, has become the focus of a film called Small Steps by Tufnell Park-based journalist Amy Hanson.
It has also prompted a project to provide protective footwear for the children who scavenge a meagre living on the dumps.
Amy does not have a background in documentary film-making, and her previous work could not be further away from the world of Cambodian slums.
Before heading East, Amy had been covering celebrity gossip for the Mail On Sunday, covering late-night antics of such figures as Prince William and Prince Harry at swish Kensington nightclubs. Following an upper-class entourage through velvet foyers was not, she says, a satisfying way to earn a living and after one glass of champagne on expenses and one sleazy morning headline too many, she decided to pack it in and go travelling.
It was what she saw as she headed through Cambodia that prompted the project. “Wearing nice shoes was important in my previous job,” she recalls. “I used to spend my nights asking rich people what shoes they were wearing. It’s easy to get sucked in to the glitz of showbiz journalism and disregard its superficial nature. After spending years getting soundbites from well-heeled celebrities about their favourite shoes, forever being told that it was their pair of £500 red-soled Louboutins that made them strut, I started questioning my own soul. As I massaged the egos and pandered to the insatiable public interest, the wealth and the waste that underpinned every premiere and party I attended seeded a greater ambition – a proletarian journalism that would hand the exposure to those who could genuinely benefit from it.”
In October 2008 Amy travelled through South East Asia. But the hippy trail did not hold her attention. She had heard about the numbers of orphans suffering from HIV in Cambodia and decided to work as a volunteer in an orphanage.
“Cambodia has one of the highest incidences of HIV in the world among young people. There is a massive sex trade, and 50 per cent of the population is under 18,” she recalls.
“There were only 30 children at the orphanage, and so I asked: what happens to the children who are not living here?” The answer was shocking.
“They said they live on the rubbish dump – it was that simple,” she said. She had to see it for herself, and as well as the rotting waste whose stench was so bad it made you constantly wretch, the plight of abandoned children dressed in rags and barefooted stayed with Amy.
“When I got back to Tufnell Park I raised money so that I could return and put shoes on the feet of all the kids on the dump,” she said.
As news of her project got out, Amy linked up with film company Revolution Films, who asked her to take a camera to record the experience, while computer firm Apple coughed up sponsorship money.
“I wanted to do something manageable,” she says. “Poverty is something of such enormity it is hard to know where to start, so I started at the bottom, with shoes.”
The project has been such a success she is now expanding it to cover other inhabited dumps around the world.
She has found tips in Nicaragua, the Philippines, India, Gaza, Albania, Brazil and Argentina – and is planning to film documentaries on them, identifying where the waste comes from, and highlighting the lives of the people who live there. And she is going to call on her celebrity contacts to raise money by auctioning their favourite footwear.
“One pair of heels could pay for 250 shoes,” she says. “It puts it into context.”
• For details of Small Steps screenings, visit www.amyhanson.co.uk. The film is due to be shown at the London Socialist Film Co-op – date to be confirmed