The Waste land

  • The world produces billions of tons of garbage each year. People throw things away, take out the bag and once it’s on the truck, don’t give it another thought.In the multi-award winning and Oscar nominated documentary The Wasteland, directed by Lucy Walker, garbage is given a new life.
    It follows Vik Muniz, a renowned artist residing in New York, as he returns to his homeland of Brazil with the altruistic notion to give back to the community by giving the people that work at a landfill some significance by painting them.

 He is referred to as the man who “gives life to garbage”.

The title of this documentary is certainly apt but as the story develops and layers of garbage are torn away, the focal point is revealed; the impact of his work on the seven people who are the subjects of the artwork. They are garbage pickers or catadores in the biggest landfill in the world, Jardim Gramacho on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.

The powerful aerial shots miniaturise them making their figures indiscernible from the garbage but as Muniz and his team delve deeper, focusing on each one, allowing them their 15 minutes of fame to narrate the circumstances that led them there, the viewer gets to know them.
They are Suelem, the 19 year old mother of 2, Isis the glamorous romantic with an infectious smile and easy tears. Irma the soft spoken yet strong cook and Magna who is humble and determined, despite the stigma of her job, to be the breadwinner for her famliy. This unveils a certain dignity to the work that they do.
Under the auspices of the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho, they spend their days collecting recyclables from the dump which receives 70% of their country’s garbage. The president of ACAMJG Tiaõ, a catedore from the age of 11, has a child-like charm and works tirelessly to get them recognition as part of the working class as, even though it is not a job they would not have preferred, they would rather do this than turn tricks or resolve to a life of crime as do so many in the impoverished communities they live in.

There are many issues that are interwoven to make this a universal story. It is an awakening to issues of poverty, crime, teen pregnancy, environmental issues, socio-economic divides and most poignantly the lives of the main characters. It is very personal and highlights each person not only in the works of art produced but in the effects of the entire project on their lives.
Muniz’s wife make a relevant point in the film, when she questions the affect of exposing the catedores  to life outside the wasteland, basically saying it would be like dangling a carrot in front of a horses face.

Editor Pedro Kos must have had many a sleepless nights, editing footage shot over a period of three years, but the end product stirringly illustrates the transformation of the group from catedore to muse. They also become artists in their own rights, using the very same trash they handle everyday to immortalise themselves in artworks larger than they ever imagined themselves or their lives would ever be.

The simplicity of their lives does not allow them to grasp the gravity of their celebrity which spirals far beyond the proverbial 15 minutes. Even when Muniz’s solo exhibition of their artworks called Pictures of Garbage Series, in MAM in Rio de Janeiro, breaks attendance records, rivaled only by  an exhibition of the works of Picasso.

This film is about art, but it is not particularly artistic itself. The story and characters are enough to carry it forward beautifully without needing elaborate cinematography by Dudu Miranda. The paradox of the wasteland and the life of the people who work there and the galleries or homes the pieces will end up in, serves as a powerful reminder that beauty or rather art, has no class or status.

If you have no interest in any of the issues this film addresses, are not particularly a patron of art, are not intrigued by the land of Samba, The Wasteland will still move you for one reason, it is a story of humanity, of the possibilities that lie in, around and beyond the mountain of garbage called life.

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