Last night I had the pleasure, better late than never, to see the 2010 documentary Waste Land, a deeply moving, sometimes hard to watch, yet ultimately inspiring and hopeful account of Brazillian-born artist Vik Muniz‘ three-year project at the world’s largest landfil, Rio de Janeiro’s Jardim Gramacho.
Muniz, who had already become known for using found objects and other unusual materials, such as peanut butter & jelly and chocolate syrup, took these ideas to a whole other level at Jardim Gramacho, fueled by a wonderfully idealistic and altruistic mission, stated at the outset of the film: Now that he has achieved worldwide artistic and material success, it was time to give something back, to create art that changes people’s lives.
The heart of the film is the community of Catadores — workers who pick through the garbage in the dump, gleaning recyclable materials — with whom Muniz forges a real collaboration. After spending time on site, talking to and getting to know some of the Catadores, a handful of them are chosen to be the subjects of portraits by Muniz, with all eventual proceeds from the works to be donated to the subject Catadores and the ACAMJG (the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho). The working conditions are practically unimaginable, the lives of the Catadores are extremely difficult, but they work hard and are proud that they have chosen to be pickers rather than drug dealers or prostitutes.
Now, when I say that Muniz collaborated with the Catadores, this collaboration went way beyond their becoming subjects for portraits. (The portraits were produced from photos of the subjects that were projected, giant-sized, onto the floor of a warehouse, the images were then filled in using all manner of refuse, and high-resolution photos were taken of the finished pieces. Click on the photos included here and zoom in to see what’s really going on.)
From collecting the materials to be used in the portraits to actually helping assemble the pieces under Muniz’ direction, these people imbued the work with their very lives and experiences.
The most moving scenes of the whole film centered on just how connected the Catadores became with the portraits, all of them brought to tears upon seeing them in their completed state from the scaffolding above. They never dreamed they’d be the subject of something so incredibly beautiful, or that something so beautiful could be born from the ugliness of Jardim Gramacho. Later, one of the subjects, Tiaõ, travels with Vik to London for an auction of his portrait, where it sold for $64,000, and he weeps while telling his mother the news over the phone. Likewise, when Tiaõ and the other subjects are brought to the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo for the opening of an exhibit of their portraits, they are all similarly moved to tears.
As New York Times film critic Stephen Holden puts it:
It is the first confirmation from the world outside the dump that their lives matter.
Having been born lower middle class in Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, Muniz describes at one point that many of the Catadore families were from a similar background, but ended up in Jardim Garmacho due to unfortunate circumstances.
As a result, the film has a palpable there-but-for-the-grace-of-God undercurrent.
And so, you might ask whether or not Vik Muniz met his goal of really, meaningfully changing lives.
There’s a key scene in a cozy, modern home where Muniz and his wife are arguing about the long term implications of the project. Muniz mentions that some of the Catadores have asked to keep working for him after the project is over, stating that they don’t want to go back to just being pickers. Additionally, at this point, the decision had not been made as to whether or not to bring Tiaõ to London. Muniz’ wife seems to feel that there is an unintended cruelty to exposing the Catadores to a better life only to return them to the misery of the landfill when the project is over, but Vik says that if he was in their shoes and was offered a chance to have this experience, he’d still want to have the experience even if he knew that it was a taunting and fleeting glimpse.
Ultimately, at the end of the film, we learn that most of the subjects, thanks to the royalties from the portraits, are successful in leaving Jardim Garmacho, and that other monies raised have helped the ACAMJG found a library, medical clinic, day care center, and a skills training center to help the Catadores transition to better jobs.
Really, there’s no question that lives were changed.