Waste Land

from Lucy Walker’s documentary Waste Land

I’m at this point in my career that I’m trying to step a little bit away from the realm of fine arts because I think it’s a very exclusive, very restrictive place to be.

True to his word, artist Vic Muniz stepped about as far from the high art firmament as possible. The Jardim Gramacho, located in Rio de Janeiro, is the world’s largest landfill, and the location for director Lucy Walker’s cathartic documentary, Waste Land.

Collectively, the seven stars of the film have devoted almost a century to recycling. Pickers known as “Catadores,” remove 200 tons of recyclable materials a day, “equivalent to the garbage produced by a city of 400,000 people.” When Muniz’s team visits the colossus, pickers quickly scale a load of refuse while the near vertical mass slides down the back of a greasy dump truck.

One by one, Muniz photographs the old souls, whose faces tell tragic stories. Take Irma, the dedicated, resident chef. Rain or shine, she cooks meals from whatever ingredients make their way to the landfill. Tião, the magnetic founder and president of the Association for the Pickers of Jardim Gramacho (ACAMJG) describes its grassroots beginning, when “the pickers built a recycling facility without a cent from the city.” The ACAMJG now represents over 3,000 pickers.

The manifestation of Muniz’s vision is collaborative each step of the way. He and the catadores narrow each photo shoot down to a single image that captures the individual’s personality and history. Tião then gives Muniz a crash course in recyclable materials and, like a painter’s pallet, they select texture- and color-specific materials best suited to achieve the aesthetic.

During the next two weeks, the pickers join Muniz and four tons of recyclables in his Rio de Jeneiro studio. Atop a scaffold situated over twenty meters above the novice artisans, Muniz projects each image down to the floor. Wielding a laser pointer, he orchestrates the creation of the work below. Sections of recyclable material, from plastic bottle caps to discarded Carnivale headdresses, are methodically laid upon the projection like movements of a symphony.

“The moment when one thing turns into another is the most beautiful moment. A combination of sounds transforms into music, and that applies to everything. That moment is really magical.” The transformation Muniz describes is finally achieved amid tears, as each person views their portrait from high above.

Large-scale photographs are taken of each work, and Tião’s piece is selected for auction in London. Submerged in a bathtub found at the Jardim Gramacho, Tião is draped over the side, like Marat in Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting. “I never thought I’d become a work of art.” The photograph and subsequent prints of the collection have raised over $300,000 for the catadores.

“What I really want to be able to do is change the lives of a group of people with the same materials they deal with every day.” The Waste Land website provides updates on the Catadores, whose lives are undeniably transformed for the better. Zumbi and Tião built a library with over 7,000 books that also serves as a community learning center, offering courses in co-op management, recycling and environmental management, and information technology. Waste Land’s story of transformation extends beyond the credits, daring to shift the viewer’s sociological perceptions of macro and micro. In the words of Irma, “Sometimes we see ourselves as so small, but people out there see us as so big, so beautiful.”

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