Waste Land (Brazil)

2010 Brazil

SUNDAY 28th July 10.00 am
TUESDAY 30th July 8.00 pm
RUNNING TIME 99 minutes


Filmed over nearly three years, Waste Land follows renowned artist Vik Muniz as he journeys from his home base in Brooklyn to his native Brazil and the world’s largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. There he photographs an eclectic band of self-designated pickers of recyclable materials. Muniz’s initial objective was to “paint” the catadores with garbage. However, his collaboration with these inspiring characters as they recreate photographic images of themselves out of garbage reveals both dignity and despair as the pickers begin to re-imagine their lives.


This Oscar-nominated documentary by Lucy Walker is about the Brazilian artist and photographer Vik Muniz and his work with the “pickers”, or catadores, who eke out an existence scavenging scraps from Rio’s colossal city garbage dump. The title avowedly refers to TS Eliot’s poem, but what Walker thinks she’s showing us in her handful of dust is not fear, but life-affirming hope. Some might find the movie’s take-home optimism naive and Muniz’s attitude itself open to question. But this is undoubtedly a bold raid into an unknown territory – both geographic and conceptual – that the prosperous classes prefer not to think about.

When we throw out rubbish, it is easy to assume that it somehow vanishes. In fact, of course, it largely goes to landfill sites such as Jardim Gramacho in Rio De Janeiro: the world’s biggest dump, a huge, undulating, foul-smelling, seagull-covered landscape of garbage which is home to about 3,000 people, who work all day picking out material that can be sold on to commercial recycling companies. Uneaten food found there is gratefully consumed. Walker follows Muniz as he works on a project creating portraits of the pickers, using the materials from this site, which will be sold at auction, with the profits going to the pickers themselves, or rather their representative campaigning group.

Inevitably, the pickers are always finding dead bodies. One 18-year-old woman, Suelem Pereira Dias, calmly recounts finding a dead baby in the rubbish and says: “I immediately thought of my own kids.” She has two, and the remarkable portrait Muniz creates of her with these children may have been inspired by Arshile Gorky’s The Artist and His Mother.

Is it exploitative? Very possibly, yes. One picker has a free trip to London for the auction and the featured pickers get to come to a champagne opening in Rio, and are encouraged to believe that they are “famous all over the world”. But do they just go back to the dump? Won’t this mess them up? And are these people being treated as human rubbish to be recycled into collectable art for rich people? Muniz’s answer to all this is quite simple: it’s inspiring and empowering for them and, anyway, nothing could be worse than their current existence. Maybe that’s true. I suspect, however, that smiley Muniz has an artist’s ruthlessness, something like the splinter of ice in his heart that Graham Greene talked about. And perhaps this story isn’t over. If Waste Land wins an Oscar, the pickers may be besieged by no-win-no-fee lawyers persuading them they should sue for a share of the movie profits. At any rate, Muniz’s intervention in their lives is a compelling spectacle. [In 2011, Inside Job – the story of the origins of the financial crash – won the award.]condition.

Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/feb/24/waste-land-review


“We are not pickers of garbage; we are pickers of recyclable materials,” Tião, an impoverished Brazilian catadore, or trash picker, declares to a talk-show host in Lucy Walker’s inspiring documentary Waste Land.

Tião, like the other catadores profiled in the film, is far from an emaciated beggar living out a miserable existence on the way to an early death. But he is humble and has few expectations of earthly glory. Although a social outcast,he organized an association of pickers who live and work in Jardim Gramacho,one of the world’s largest garbage dumps, and likes to think of himself as an environmentalist.

The film — co-directed by João Jardim and Karen Harley, and photographed by DuduMiranda — observes this giant landfill from every perspective. Viewed from a distance, the pickers resemble insects crawling and slipping over the mountains of trash while scavenging birds circle overhead. What appears from afar to be chaos, however, is really a little universe unto itself. Most of the workers,who earn $20 to $25 a day combing through the refuse, live at Jardim Gramacho,which receives 70 percent of Rio de Janeiro’s trash.

Sorted into categories, the garbage is sold to a network of wholesalers and middlemen;recycled metal, for instance, eventually becomes buckets and car bumpers. Tião,whose organisation has established a recycling center and a medical clinic as well as day care and skills-training centres for the cat adores, boasts about the amount of garbage that is recycled. Zumbi, a board member of the association and its resident intellectual, has turned his shack into a community lending library of discarded books.

Tião is the most prominently featured of several pickers profiled by the film.Their lives are changed forever when they are chosen to collaborate with the artist Vik Muniz, a São Paulo native who is now based in Brooklyn and is well known for his re-creations of famous artworks using unusual materials. Those pieces include two Mona Lisas — one made of peanut butter, the other of jelly— and a “Last Supper” made of chocolate syrup. For his Sugar Children series,he took snapshots of children on a plantation in St. Kitts and copied the images by layering sugar on black paper and photographing the result.

The film observes the creation of his recent monumental series, Pictures of Garbage,for which Mr. Muniz, who grew up poor, returned to Brazil. For the piece “Marat (Sebastião)”, a rendition of the Jacques-Louis David painting “The Death of Marat”,Tião is photographed in a discarded bathtub found in the landfill, striking the same pose as Jean-Paul Marat in the 1793 painting. In his nearby studio, Mr.Muniz blows up the picture and projects it on the floor as a magnified outline.Using a laser pointer, he directs from a scaffold as the pickers fill in the images with refuse from the landfill. A photograph of the finished assemblage,taken from the scaffold, is the final work of art.

“Waste Land” is more interested in the subjects of Mr. Muniz’s pieces than in the artistic process, which is barely described. They include Irma, who stirs up stews from the freshest ingredients she can find in the dump, and Suelem, an 18-year-old mother who takes pride in her work because she is not selling her body or dealing drugs.

Mr. Muniz, who seems manically happy throughout the film, expresses his amazement at how “the educated elite really believe they’re better than other people.”He has a mystical faith in the artistic power of transformation, as one thing becomes another and garbage is turned into art. He fervently believes that he is changing his subjects’ lives for the better by “showing them another place,”even if they never make it out of Jardim Gramacho.

When he takes Tião to an auction in London, where “Marat (Sebastião)” sells for$50,000, the young man weeps uncontrollably. Other subjects, confronting images of themselves at an exhibition in Rio, are overwhelmed. It is the first confirmation from the world outside the dump that their lives matter.

Source: Stephen Holden: From a Universe of Trash, Recycling Art and Hope, The New York Times 28/10/2010: http://movies.nytimes.com/2010/10/29/movies/29waste.html?_r=0