TV review: Toughest Place to Be a . . . Street Sweeper

A Temple Bar worker travels to Manila to work in an impoverished suburb in this unflinching documentary

Mel Macaraeg and Mark Crosbie in the Philippines

Mel Macaraeg and Mark Crosbie in the Philippines

 

To see what culture shock looks like, watch Dublin street cleaner Mark Crosbie’s expressive face at any point in the hour-long immersive documentary Toughest place to be . . . A Street Sweeper (RTÉ One, Monday).

This is the first in a series, with other jobs to follow. Street cleaning on his normal beat is in and around Dublin’s grubby pub quarter Temple Bar. It isn’t physically demanding, he says, “just tedious”, but there’s a camaraderie in the 18-man cleaning team, the chats with the public, a security in his employer Dublin Corporation’s commitment to health and safety. The grandfather of two earns an “honest bob” so while he doesn’t have a job many would envy, it’s happy days. And then for the purposes of the documentary he travels to the Philippines to work for a week, living and shadowing father-of-six Mel Macaraeg, a street sweeper in a crowded, impoverished suburb of Manila. Home is a one-up, one-down tin-roofed shack held together with cardboard and Macaraeg earns the equivalent of €15 a week – just enough for wife Maria to buy one main meal a day for the family.

In the morning, in the already searing heat, Macaraeg pushes his rusty wheelbarrow through the streets, sweeping as he goes “not even a proper brush” observes Crosbie, looking at the scrappy broom. In the afternoon Macaraeg, ungloved, in his wellies and trackie pants, must get down into several rat-infested open sewers to unblock them. Between retching, Crosbie, with his voice lowered in horror, talks about health and safety. Macaraeg shrugs and says he’s 43 years old, what else can he do, and anyway it’s for his family: his version of the honest bob answer.

And then in a you-think-that’s-bad move, the film takes Crosbie to where the rubbish ends up, Manila’s vast garbage mountain where hordes of scavengers sift through the rubbish to find recyclables they can sell; or, more horrifyingly, food waste, such as bits of chicken or burgers with bites taken out of them from fast food restaurants, that are then washed and eaten.

The tattooed, shaven-headed Crosbie is a tough looking bloke – Macaraeg describes him as “macho” – but when faced with such deep poverty matched by human resilience, his emotions rise easily to the surface. He doesn’t transform into a reporter, as often happens in these cross-cultural films. He doesn’t ask searching questions about economics or politics. Instead he reacts instinctively to the kindness he receives from his hosts, and the relentless poverty he sees around him. And that’s the power of this determinedly observational film, which stays in the mind – and the stomach; Crosbie isn’t the only one to have a visceral reaction to that sewer trawling – long after the credits roll.

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