WASTE LAND. Starring Vik Muniz. Directed by Lucy Walker (with Joao Jardim and Karen Harley). Rated M (Mature themes). 99 min.
This film received the audience award for the best international documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. It is on the work of Brazilian contemporary photographer-artist, Vik Muniz, who stars in the film. His art here is made from recyclable materials at Jardim Gramacho, a huge landfill that serves the waste needs of the people of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. This landfill removes more garbage than any other landfill in the world, and it is home to an extraordinary cooperative community of scavengers whose way of staying alive is to pick through the garbage. The people who work the landfill are called “catadores”, and they are the underclass of Rio.
At Gramacho, Muniz recruits the catadores, works with them, and photographs them in images he creates around huge collages of trash. The results of his work are massive mosaics destined to be sold at prestigious art auctions in London, and featured in the Museum of Modern Art in Rio. The film tracks Muniz from his home in Brooklyn, New York, to his native Brazil, where the documentary unfolds stories about individual catadores, who create the art with Muniz. Back home, Muniz auctions his photographic art to bring money back to help them.
The film is not only about Muniz’s creativity, but also about the working conditions of the catadores, and it makes a profound social comment about the poor people of Rio. Their working conditions are horrifying, but they are dignified and personable people with very different stories to tell. An old woman feeds the workers (from food gathered at the dump) at a stall she has established in the middle of the garbage site. Another tells us why she chose scavenging over prostitution as a means to survive. Another hates what she is doing, but knows she has to do it to stay alive. All tell their stories with great dignity.
The film is artistically fascinating, morally stimulating, and inspiring. Muniz himself is a great artist and a humanitarian, and he is infectiously likeable. The film mixes art with social change, and it demonstrates powerfully that art can change people. It carries images of the catadores weeping before the art they have helped to create. Muniz does not simply work mechanically to produce his pieces. A particularly compelling image is “The Death of Marat”. An abandoned bathtub is found at the dump by a catedore. Putting him in the tub, and surrounding the image of the catadore with garbage, Muniz vividly recreates “La Mort de Marat”, a painting by Jacques-Louis David and one of the most famous pictorial images of the French Revolution.
One of the beautiful things about this very moving film is that the catedores are eager participants in the creative process. They love being part of it, and lives for some of them are changed for the better by their being involved. For some of them, their lives are changed forever. However, one feels the documentary does not do justice to the level of stress, deprivation and turmoil most of them have endured, and some of the them ultimately have to return to. But it is clear that their involvement with Muniz has energized them, and given them renewed hope.
This film is a living testimony to the dignity of what it is to be human. It captures terrible conditions ("it is not bad to be poor", a catadore says), and shows the strength of purpose and conviction of human beings, who have to cope with extraordinary circumstances.
This is a wonderful documentary - positive, affirming of life, and depicting the triumph of spirit over adversity.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out December 1st, 2011.