In the shadow of the Acropolis, they set off before dawn. Men and boys driving rusty trucks, pushing heavy hand-carts, towing wagons behind battered motorcycles. As the city slowly comes to life, they are already well into their day’s work, scouring alleys and Dumpsters for old box-spring mattresses, appliances, car parts, anything they can salvage and sell at a scrap yard for a few dollars a day.
Many Athens residents have been struggling to get by since economic and political crisis erupted in Greece, threatening to engulf much of Europe. But the estimated 80,000 Athenians who collect and process scrap in the city's informal economy were eking out their meager livings back when the rest of the city was still living large.
"In 2004, when we started filming, nobody was talking about poverty or corruption," says Greek filmmaker Christos Karakepelis, who spent six years capturing life among Athens’s scavengers for his documentary, Raw Material. "Greece was celebrating the Olympic Games; everything seemed bright and hopeful," he says.
That optimism led Greece to invest $15 billion in new sporting facilities for the Games and helped drive consumer spending to record levels. But Karakepelis says the precariousness of Greece's situation was evident even back then to anyone who bothered to look at the city’s underclass, the thousands of people living in shanty homes cobbled together from scrap wood and lined with old billboards.
cenes from Christos Karakepelis's "Raw Material," courtesy Falero House
"The situation of the scavengers showed this sense [of prosperity] was a false one," says the director after a recent screening of his film at the 31st Istanbul Film Festival. "To be five minutes from the Parthenon, the symbol of Western civilization, and see people living this way showed things would turn out differently in the future."
Today, in the fifth straight year of recession for Greece, the lives of Athens's garbage-pickers no longer seem so distant from those of the rest of its inhabitants. Nearly 1.1 million Greeks are out of work, mostly in Athens and other urban areas. Thirty percent of the shops in the capital are shuttered, crime is on the rise, and homelessness, once almost nonexistent, is now a regular sight on the city’s streets.
"In 2004, nobody else had the fear that they might end up in a situation like this. Today fear is the basic sentiment of Greek society," says Karakepelis. "The scavengers symbolize the fear of falling downward, and more people are now falling down like this every day. Poverty is closer to everyone’s experiences."
Having more people share their woes has made times even tougher for the garbage pickers, who remain at the margins of Greek society and face increased competition for shrinking resources. Karakepelis says two or three times as many people are now picking over smaller and smaller pieces of trash as sharply reduced consumption by the middle class means fewer bonanzas like old refrigerators left out on the street.
The scavengers depicted in Raw Material, who came to Athens from Albania, India, Turkey, and elsewhere, are at additional risk due to a rise in violent attacks against immigrants in the city. Their status as illegal immigrants makes it difficult for them to organize themselves and demand more money and rights—as members of the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers gathered recently to do on the sidelines of the Rio+20 summit in Brazil.
Karakepelis hopes his film can join a long cinematic tradition of "giving existence to people on the margins of society," in this case the people who are responsible for 80 percent of the 3 million tons of iron produced in Greece each year through the recycling process. "The city exists around them but is indifferent to their situation," he says.
That indifference, he suggests, is detrimental not only to the trash pickers but to society as a whole, whose failure to consider the plight of some of its poorest urban dwellers may have blinded it to early warning signs of broader problems in Greece.
"After a screening in Athens, people said they saw the city in a different way, that it wasn’t the same city they thought it was,” Karakepelis says. "It led them to reconsider their priorities."