A place they call 'Happyland'

Firstly, can you please share your story with us. What is Happyland?

Melbourne street artist, Kaff-eine, and her international team reunited with two notorious and impoverished dumpsite communities of Baseco and Happyland, Manila, creating and installing a collection of ‘art tarpaulins’ that featured Kaff-eine’s portraits of 10 community personalities. The resulting open-air exhibition celebrated the communities, while also providing them with much-needed resources for shelter. Happyland has been three years in the making.

Many in these dumpsite communities have little material wealth, and daily are dealing with the very sobering challenges created by poverty. Residents told us about a whole host of factors that make life in these communities particularly harsh:  the limited access to fresh water and sanitation or good quality fresh food. Housing is vulnerable to the elements all year round: if not flooding, rains and winds, there are fires, and the ever-present concern about earthquakes and volcanic activity.

‘The communities involved in my last project, Phoenix, made it clear that housing is really important. We wanted to make something creative, valuable and special; so we found 10 interesting personalities from the slums, I painted their portraits, we printed these on to large advertising tarpaulins, and returned to the slums where residents installed them among the garbage and shanties. As soon as we’d photographed the installations, the community used the tarps to build or reinforce their homes,’ explains Kaff-eine.  

Our crew interviewed residents featured in the portraits, who range from students to community workers, laundry women, child scavengers and gangsters. We also followed the tarp installation process amid the daily life of the residents, which included scavenging and cooking recycled garbage to eat.

The resulting guerilla-style Happyland documentary is raw, confronting and visually striking. It invites audiences to meet the communities that have such fearsome reputations, hear their stories, and follow how new friends from very different backgrounds collaborate to bring an ambitious project to life in the wastelands of Manila. 

It’s such a raw, honest storyline – how did you get the word ‘Happy’ out of it?

Happyland is actually the name of one of the communities we worked with. Happyland comes from the local word ‘hapilan’ for dumpsite.

You’ve managed to depict a life where even though people do live in the slums, they’re still so happy. What is their recipe for happiness?

We can only speak for us, but we reckon happiness is as universal an experience as you can get, although it’s going to be expressed differently across cultures and places. Resources obviously make a huge difference in opportunity. But whether you have nothing or something, no matter what culture you’re from, you can turn towards each other. It wasn’t unexpected for us to find fabulous humour, resilience, and strong families and friends in these communities – and this hopefully comes through strong and loud in the Happyland documentary.  

I’m sure that you met some inspiring individuals while shooting this documentary. Did any of them share a story that has left an impact on you personally?

Em: Wow – we met so many people whose stories gave me pause. Several are featured in the Happyland documentary who share their stories; one of my favourite personalities who was featured on an art tarp is little Jonathan, who is 11 years old. Jonathan’s pretty cheeky and pulls some great poses for photos, but he also happens to be one of THE best karaoke singers in that area of Baseco. In his family’s home in the middle of one of the communities, he had us spellbound when he was belting out that pop song, ‘Domino’, in his tiny voice that hit all the notes; in a country where it’s a national past time for everyone to sing or dance, anytime, everywhere, and a community that barely stops moving, he got us hushed and listening.

Kaff: We really wanted to represent a range of cultures and beliefs in the community. We found Fairodes, a cultural activist who was born in the Muslim south of the Philippines, but now lives in Baseco. It’s her passion to share her culture and religion. In a country that is racked by ongoing civil tensions, she is a beacon of unity, celebration and sharing of differences.

 Do you feel as though you had a successful response from the community?

We worked closely with the residents of the community; there is no way this project could have happened without the special collaboration between our friends in community, the amazingly skilled construction crews (one from each community) and our own crew, including our youth production assistants, one of whom is Princess, whose family is in Happyland.  We had a lot fun making this project and hopefully this comes through in the documentary! Most importantly, we are really proud that the beautiful and useful art tarpaulins for the community are a starting point for new conversations and stories. 

We can’t wait to hold a big celebration and showing of the documentary in communities in December – watch this space!

If you could have a street artist name, what would it be and why?

Em: Definitely the big cheese.

 There was video footage of little children sifting through muddy water. What were they trying to find and how can they do this with a smile on their face?

They were looking for treasure: money, something to sell. Many of the kids in these communities work with the rubbish to find food and things to sell to support their family. The kids are just kids.  The grinding poverty of the area obviously weighs on them and affects them – they’re doing tough work and often not at school - but they also play, joke and hang out with their mates and do what they can to get by.

Have there been some serious health problems amongst the communities due to their lack of resources?

Yes, these communities do it really tough. Living in and making their living on active dumpsites - from sorting things for recycling and sale, to eating food scavenged from the garbage, with limited running water, no plumbing, drainage and little electricity - the residents face a huge range of daily challenges, especially as access to health care is pretty limited.

If the public could get one message out of watching the documentary, what would you like it to be, and why?

Through Happyland, we aim to connect people from different walks of life: when people connect with the stories and lives of those in Baseco and Happyland, they begin to see similarities instead of differences. Fear and anxiety become curiosity and compassion and many good things can come from that.   

Now that you have created impact on social awareness, what is next in store for Happyland?

We’re working hard to get the documentary out to international audiences – we’re just working out how far our budget may stretch!  and we’re also planning the December exhibition and documentary premiere for the communities in Manila, Philippines.

And last question, how can we support your ventures?

Thank you, we’d love your support.

Get involved

The Happyland team aim to keep conversations, collaboration and creativity growing.  Get in touch with cheeseagle about upcoming events and ways to get involved.

Donate to the communities

Bahay Tuluyan works with children in Manila, Philippines, including in Happyland. You can donate through its affiliated Australian organisation here. 

 Support the Happyland documentary

Help us get the Happyland documentary and the stories and voices of Happyland and Baseco residents to wider audiences through film festivals and community screenings. You can support the Happyland film here.



The Happyland exhibition and documentary will be premiering at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival in May 2017.

The Happyland exhibition will feature Kaff-eine's 10 paintings, photographs of the installation of art tarps and vignettes of daily life in Baseco and Happyland. 

Exhibition opening:  5 May @ 6 – 9 PM at No Vacancy Project Space, the Atrium, Federation Square, Melbourne. Exhibition runs 5-21 May  (details of No Vacancy here).  Free entry. 

 Documentary premiere (SOLD OUT): The Happyland documentary premieres on 6 May @ 6:45 PM (followed by Q&A with cheeseagle team) at ACMI, Federation Square. (Details online here). 

 Documentary encore screening:  The Happyland documentary will have an encore screening on 8 May @ 4:30 PM (followed by Q&A with cheeseagle team) at ACMI, Federation Square. (Details online here). 





Sarah Long