Waste Land is a film about finding the beauty in an ugly place. It’s about garbage and recycling, sort of. Or it is a film about looking at art, or about making art. Or about the potential of art to change people. It is all these things and more, I think, as I attempt to digest the powerful story that I saw last night at the Italian premiere (part of the Lo Schermo dell’Arte film festival in Florence).
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Directed by Lucy Walker and featuring New York contemporary artist Vik Muniz, the documentary film recounts the three-year project by Muniz “as he journeys from his home base in Brooklyn to his native Brazil and the world’s largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. There he photographs an eclectic band of catadores, self-designated pickers of recyclable materials. His collaboration with these inspiring characters as they recreate photographic images of themselves out of garbage reveals both the dignity and despair of the catadores.” (From the press release)
Muniz quickly befriends a number of catadores. We meet Irma, the cook who improvises everyone’s lunches out of scavenged food; Zumbi, the resident intellectual who has held onto every book he’s scavenged; and Valter who pontificates about poverty and recycling. This motley crew is headed up by their president Tião Santos who formed the cooperative Association of Pickers of Jardim Gramacho that has been making everyone’s lives slightly better. Thanks to books found in the dump that has been his home since he was eleven, Tião reveals that has read Machiavelli and identifies with that timeless story of power and leadership.
Recycling and consumption
It’s impossible to walk out of this film and not think about our own habits of consumption. This morning as I separated out my recyclables I thought of Valter, who, like other figures in Waste Land, is extremely aware of the environmental impact of undifferentiated garbage. His expression “99 is not 100” becomes a kind of slogan; Valter – who comes right out and tells the camera that he “has no education, neither primary nor secondary” – uses the example of a person who says “it’s just one can” and so chooses not to recycle.
For the catadores, recyclable material that ends in the dump turns into a living wage, permitting them, as so many of the women emphasize, a job they consider honest and dignified compared to their main other option, prostitution. An estimated 3,000-5,000 people live in the dump of Jardim Gramacho (and its related favela); 15,000 derive their income from activities related to it. Through their actions, the catadores not only manage to live on the revenues from recyclable materials but they have extended the life of the landfill, too: by removing materials that would have otherwise been buried, it now has one of the highest recycling rates in the world.
While this is positive news, elements of the film remind us that we acumulate unnecessary objects; that in “first world” countries we forget the first R of the three R’s I learned in elementary school, reduce, reuse, recycle.
Looking at art
As Vik and the crew first visit Jardim Gramacho they see it both on the ground and from a helicopter, and they observe that strangely in this case the dump looks better from close up, because that’s where the humanity is. The contrast between looking at art from closer or further away remains a theme as the Catadores participate in making and viewing the monumental pieces. Vik demonstrates how most people look at art in a museum, leaning in and then out, sparking amused comments from the catadores. We see Vik directing his team from afar in the arrangement of the garbage that is to become the work of art, and we experience the emotion of the subjects who understand the visual impact of the pieces only when they see them from high above on scaffolding. The irony of the final works, sold for a high price at auction, seems also to show through here: rich people who do everything to avoid dealing with their garbage are willing to buy an image of it when it’s branded “Vik Muniz”. You can imagine them tentatively leaning in to the large scale photographs, afraid to be hit by strong odours.
Photographed in poses that recall iconic works of art, Tião seems most conscious of the meaning of his “character” – he’s posed as Marat in a bathtub they found in the dump. He also has the privilege of encountering contemporary art in person with Vik at his side to explain it, and it’s interesting because we witness his very honest reactions to it. Asked what he thought of contemporary art before participating in it through this project, he says “I thought it was crap.”
Muniz and his team were conscious of their potentially transformative but disruptive role as they introduced the catadores to art and to an alternative life. All the proceeds from the sale of the photographs at auction went directly to them (I won’t give away what they did with it though), providing the possibility of a way out – but only for a chosen few.
I think each viewer at the Odeon last night was touched a different aspect or moment of the film; on the whole I was mesmerized, but what moved me to tears was when Irma (the cook) saw her portrait in the MAM in Rio de Janeiro and said “I have never been in a museum before.” To think that so many people in this world not only don’t see the inside of a museum or have easy access to public art but that they don’t witness or participate in beauty… The “Pictures of Garbage” project brought a sense of self-worth to people whose society classifies them as garbage itself.