After fleeing a war-torn southern region of the Philippines, a widower named Julio and his handicapped son Ingo eke out a living in the Payatas area of Manila, known as the largest garbage-collecting settlement in the world. Their only chance of survival is in Payatas’ mountains of trash, which scavengers pick through to salvage empty cans, bottles, scrap iron and anything else that can be sold. Amid the shantytown’s poverty, squalor and violence, the father and son manage to find friendship, love and hope.
Life takes a more promising turn when Julio gets a chance to win prize money at a local basketball game, which could secure his family’s future. The option for a better life evaporates, however, when he is accused of a murder and must do the unimaginable in order to clear his name.
A suspenseful fictional film and the first narrative movie shot in the dump site, The Mountain Thief offers raw insight into the harsh realities of living and coping with extreme poverty. Director Gerry Balasta recruited the real-life scavengers in Payatas to play themselves in the film, and conducted acting workshops for them when he began the project in 2004. The most poignant performance is that of Ingo, played by a boy who is visually impaired himself in real life. It is only the child, surrounded by desperation and hopelessness, who sees beauty and peace in his squalid world.
For New York–based Balasta, who was born and raised in the Philippines, his memories of the sight and stench of the Payatas dump site triggered the idea of producing The Mountain Thief in order to call attention to the plight of its residents. Upon completion, the film spawned The Mount Hope Project, which raised funds for the medical care for two children in Payatas.
– Heather Keung