The Oscar-nominated documentary “Waste Land,” directed by Lucy Walker, follows artist and photographer Vik Muniz as he creates his “Pictures of Garbage” series – photos of massive sculptures created with garbage culled from the world’s largest landfill, Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janeiro. The twist? The sculptures in question are portraits depicting (and made with the help of) the scavengers living and working on Jardim Gramacho, known as “catadores.” Muniz, whose pieces frequently sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, will auction the resulting works and give all proceeds to the catadores.
Muniz, the film reveals, was born in Rio de Janeiro and grew up in one of its impoverished neighborhoods. He emigrated to the United States as a teenager, using settlement money he received after being shot in the leg while trying to break up a fight. “Pictures of Garbage” seems as much an attempt by him to reconnect with that part of his life as it is an artistic conceit and social experiment.
Once in the middle of the titular wasteland, Muniz quickly isolates a likely group of participants. There is Tiaõ, the engaging president and co-founder of ACAMJG (the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho), which strives to protect and elevate the lot of Jardim Gramacho’s 13,000 catadores; Valter, the sagacious elder; 18-year-old Suelem, who scavenges to support her children and is proud that she has not been forced to resort to prostitution; heartbreakingly beautiful Isis, who wants any other life than that spent on the landfill; no-nonsense Magna; Zumbi, the landfill’s librarian and philosopher; and Irma, who, after decades in the landfill, has learned how to turn discarded foodstuffs into comforting meals for her fellow catadores. Their charisma and wisdom is such that you wonder how in the world such warm, intelligent, self-assured people ever wound up clawing for scraps in the middle of a landfill. And therein lies the point.
Americans will no doubt be shocked and dismayed by the scenes of garbage trucks unloading into the midst of a horde of catadores, so eager to scavenge the choicest bits that they casually risk being crushed beneath the avalanche of filth. But Walker does not shy away, which makes the film’s uplifting moments starker by comparison.
If Muniz or his compatriots were concerned about exploiting the catadores, the film doesn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on it. A single scene is devoted to musing about this possibility, at the end of which Muniz concludes that if he was in the catadores’ position and was given an opportunity to make art and see the world, even knowing he would have to return to the landfill in the end, he’d still jump at the chance.
The catadores, after making art that effectively forces them to reappraise themselves, seem less willing to surrender their newfound status and self-esteem. How they confront that reality will not be revealed here.
Waste Age Web Exclusive: Read a Q&A with "Waste Land" director Lucy Walker on The Heap.