Waste Land

Can art be made of the world's largest rubbish dump, Rio's Jardim Gramacho?

Waste Land by director Lucy Walker documents Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz experience as he travels back to his native country to collaborate with the garbage workers in Rio de Janeiro’s Jardim Gramacho – the world’s largest rubbish dump.

Muniz is known for his inventive use of materials and has previously created a series using unwanted junk. He has also worked with street kids in both Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and says in the film, ‘I’ve reached a stage in my career where I want to give back’.

Filmed over three years, Waste Land depicts Muniz’s physical and emotional journey, from the embryonic idea of painting the garbage workers, to the finished compositions – recreations of photographic images of the labourers assembled using trash from the site.

Walker juxtaposes close-up shots of huge pyramids of rubbish with aerial views of the landfill site from a distance: tiny figures move about, reminiscent of worker ants. The camera flies past the iconic Christ The Redeemer statue, which towers over Rio de Janeiro - its arms outstretched towards Copacabana and the surrounding affluent districts.

It’s interesting to note that its back is turned on the poorest areas of the city, including the dump at Jardim Gramacho.

The most surprising aspect of Muniz’s first tour of Jardim Granacho is the happy atmosphere there. The workers, known as ‘catadores’, greet the artist with warmth and amiability. Searching through tons of stinking, putrid waste, they describe themselves not as garbage workers, but as ‘recyclable material collectors’.

They have much pride in their work, and many talk of the dignity they feel at earning an honest crust, rather than prostituting themselves or drifting into crime. One worker, Valter, says, 'One single can is of great importance, because 99 is not 100.'

Jardim Gramacho is by no means a disorganised place, thanks in the main to Tião Santos, a young man who formed the Association of Pickers of Jardim Gramacho.

A profoundly inspirational leader, Santos has created a workable system that provides the catadores with regular wages. He also oversaw the development of community centres and other initiatives aimed at improving the workers' lives and those of their families.

The bond between the highly likeable Muniz and the dedicated Santos becomes stronger as the men work in tandem on the project. Santos himself is transformed into one of the artworks – a brilliant take on Jacques-Louis David’s infamous painting ‘The Death of Marat'.

Proceeds generated by the finished pieces are to be given back to the ACAMJG, and it doesn’t take much to persuade the handpicked workers to get involved. Here the issue of a documentary maker’s role in ensuring the wellbeing of filmed subjects raises its head. Is it ethical to take the catadores away from Jardim Granacho to work on the project? Once they have seen the world outside the dump, how can they go back?

It is difficult to watch their struggle. One worker named Isis (who helps to recreate a Picasso) seems acutely vulnerable, yet all but one of the catadores Muniz works with finds a way to better their life.

Waste Land is a well balanced film that explores the difficult lives of catadores without ever patronising them, and illustrates the unfeigned humanity behind their friendships and shared challenges.

Muniz builds genuine alliances and friendships, and his desire to support the workers in bettering themselves makes for a touching, provocative and extremely emotional documentary. Highly recommended.

Waste Land runs at QFT from March 4-9.

See it at the QFT from 4th to 9th March.