In Rio de Janeiro, there is a landfill that is the largest in the world. Named Jardim Gramacho, the island of garbage is filled with catadores, Brazilian garbage pickers who troll through the trash in search of recyclables. Halfway across the world, Vik Muniz makes art in Brooklyn. He has done well for himself, focusing mainly on photographing images made from quirky materials like chocolate syrup and sand. He decides that his next project will be working with the catadores to give back to the region. This is Waste Land, a startlingly moving film that recently made the Oscars Documentary shortlist. The movie quietly arrived at the Kendall Square Theater on Friday, but it is a film that should really be greeted with the type of attention garnered by the new Harry Potter. Equally about the importance of recycling and the interpersonal connections that can be shared in the creation of art, Waste Land is a breathtaking movie that explores just how easy it is to bring joy where there previously was despondency.
In Waste Land, Muniz discovers that the individuals he encounters are far more important than he ever thought they would be. On his first visit to Jardim Gramacho, he finds himself drawn to several different people. Choosing a select few, Muniz begins to snap pictures of them, some posed and others in their natural environment. His technique from there is to project enormous versions of these pictures on a white floor in his Rio studio. The same people in the photographs are paid to strategically place the trash they spend their lives digging through all over the floor, in the form of the picture. Muniz then snaps a picture from overhead, which in turn becomes the finished piece.
Muniz quickly discovers that the various relationships he builds with the catadores are more important than the artwork he creates. Tiao is the head of the catadore organization, devoted to improving the lives of the impoverished landfill workers. He searches for books in the rubbish in hopes of one day having enough of them to start a library for the community. This elicited some cheers from the audience in the theater, a sign that I found interesting. I had spent much of the film up to that point marveling at how wonderfully well informed and well spoken the catadores were. Some of them had read books like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and were able to understand it, without the aid of any sort of education. It was this spirit and desire to learn that made them prime candidates for escaping the harsh working conditions of Jardim Gramacho.
One of the most moving stories of the bunch belongs to Suelem, an 18-year-old mother of two. She rarely gets the opportunity to see her children, and when the camera crew follows her on her first visit home in a month, the tears begin to flow both on and off the screen. It is clear to viewers that Suelem does not value herself as a human being anymore, until she sees her own image enlarged on the giant canvas that is the studio floor. When Muniz gives her a framed version of the painting to put on her wall, she weeps on his shoulder.
Muniz’s wife is the voice of reason, speaking on behalf of the audience when she rightfully asks her husband “what is to become of these people once you leave?” The question is fair – Muniz essentially stepped into these people’s lives and plucked them from the garbage dumps, as a sort of “this is what your life could be like” moment. In fact, some of the worker’s emotionally confess to the camera that they can’t ever return to the dump again. However, the film wraps up each person’s story beautifully and (mostly) positively. In their initial interviews, almost every person Muniz meets tells him that they are perfectly happy, but in the end, it is clear that Muniz has given the catadores a new self worth and, hopefully, the will and the courage to make a change.