Film review by: Witney Seibold
Vik Muniz is a Brazilian-born artist living in New York. His latest idea is to go to a place called Jardim Gramacho, a landfill just outside of Rio de Janeiro, and make art from the garbage found there.He intends to give all the money made from the art back to the locals in an attempt to “give back” to the people.
Had Lucy Walker‘s film “Waste Land” stayed with Muniz and his patronizing liberal-guilt quest to support the local dump workers, it would have been largely insufferable. Luckily, Walker knew who the real stars of the movie were, and we actually shift focus about 20 minutes into the film, to the hardworking and self-appointed pickers, or catadores, of Jardim Gramacho.
Here is a group of people, mostly raised in the most horrible favelas of the country, who have actively turned their backs on crime, drug-running, and prostitution to pick through the dump, looking for recyclable materials. They redeem the materials with a local recycling plant, and support themselves on nothing but the redemption money.
Walker does not look down on these people the same way that Muniz is tempted to do at the film’s outset. These are not pathetic, lower class “noble savage” archetypes who are sacrificing themselves for the good of the land. There are, well, real people. We meet Tiaõ, who is trying to organize the catadores into a union, and who is an upbeat and cheerful man. We meet Suelem, a mere 19 years old, who has had to fight the temptation and easy money of prostitution, and feels she is doing a noble thing by picking through a landfill. When she makes enough money, she never wants to see the place again. We meet Isis, who is clean and fastidious and well-dressed, and has a tragic story that brought her to the dump. We meet the wacky Valter, an old man who speaks in aphorisms. One aphorism I particularly liked was that every single bottle makes a difference. “99 is not 100,” Valter would say.
Vik Muniz does indeed make art with the people. Notice I said “with” and not “about.” As “waste Land” reveals, it is the strength of their characters that make the artwork interesting, Muniz seems humbled, and largely removes himself from their lives, choosing to show how it was them that made the art, and he was merely providing the means to help them. Muniz would take photos of the catadores, then project the photos onto the floor using a slide projector, and then use the trash picked from Jardim Gramacho to recreate the portrait on a grand scale. He would them photograph the new, outsized garbage-based portrait, and sell it at suction. Muniz’ efforts earned the catadores tens of thousands of dollars.
“Waste Land” is a touching and moving character study to be sure, and it also makes sure that we don’t marginalize the working poor by pitying them or mythologizing them. But, what’s more, it’s also a subtle comment on the sorry state of the environment. That these people find so much viable, working things in the trash really throws into relief humanity’s twisted values when it comes to consumption. The world is currently designed so that we can throw whatever we need to in a garbage can, and watch it vanish forever, no really realizing that it has to go somewhere, and could possibly be used to help someone else; we can’t all rely on catadores to make sure all out recycling gets done for us.
But “Waste Land” is not a preachy political film. It a startling and revealing portrait of the lower edges of society. It’s pretty good.