Brazilian artist Vik Muniz is known for making valuable somethings out of discarded nothings. From the junk that others toss aside he creates incredible works of art, giving value to that which has been thrown away.
Waste Land, director Lucy Walker’s third feature-length documentary, follows Vik in his latest endeavor to create a series of portraits out of trash from Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest garbage dump located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. According to Vik, Jardim Gramacho is the place where “everything not good goes. Including the people.” The film is an examination of his journey through the creative process as he searches the landfill for inspiration. At least that’s how it starts.
As Vik’s project gets underway he gets to know not just the dump but also the workers who toil there. Every day the pickers, or “catadores” as they’re known, comb through the mountains of refuse for very little pay, searching for recyclable materials that have been thrown away. On their hunt they’re often confronted with horrifying things. (One young mother describes an incident where she came across an abandoned baby in the garbage.) It’s a wretched job that’s looked down upon by the rest of society, yet the intelligent, articulate, and largely happy workers recognize the value in what they do. Some comment on the environmental importance of their work, while many of the women emphasize that the job has kept them away from prostitution, the only real alternative they have. Some of the workers even have ambitions to organize a union or organization to provide assistance for the catadores and their families.
As the project develops, Lucy Walker judiciously emphasizes the growing closeness between Vik and the workers. He decides to not only depict the catadores using the recyclable materials they gather, he enlists their help to create the pieces, taking them out of the dump and into a studio in Rio. As the works of art take shape the subjects/collaborators start to see the value in the work and along with it themselves. Coming from a poor background himself, Vik relates to the workers in a way that many others can’t (or don’t).
Waste Land is a heavily layered documentary that addresses several subjects: the responsibility we all have to the environment; the responsibility of someone who has made it out of dire circumstances to go back and help others still trapped; the effect one person’s vision can have on those around him; and the “responsibility of the artist to his subject.”
On an emotional level, the film is incredibly powerful (helped by a haunting score by Moby). The plight of the workers and how they’re changed from the experience is both satisfying and heart wrenching. At the same time it offers an important environmental message about the importance of recycling. The amount of garbage in the landfill is astounding and the fact that people go through it piece by piece in order to reduce it even more so. Lastly it offers a perspective on art and the ability to find beauty and meaning in items – and even people – that others have tossed away. Simply fantastic.
The Upside: You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone not completely charmed by the people featured in this movie. In particular Tiao, the founder of the catadores cooperative, who loves to discuss Nietzsche and Machiavelli, and reenacts Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat for his portrait.
The Downside: I’m thinking…
On the Side: The exhibition featuring the portraits was a huge success and all of the proceeds earned has gone back into helping the workers and the community.
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