Blame it on Rio

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Casey Sanchez The New Mex­i­can

Waste Land, 98 min­utes, garbage-art doc, not rated, in English and Por­tuguese with sub­ti­tles, CCA Cine­math­eque, 3 chiles

Cata­dores is a Por­tuguese term for the Brazil­ian work­ers who toil atop mas­sive ur­ban land­fills, pick­ing through trash for re­cy­clable goods to sell. In Rio de Janeiro at Jardim Gra­ma­cho, the world’s largest dump, work­ers liv­ing in a tin-roof shan­ty­town spend their days wad­ing through heaps of garbage and build­ing an un­likely com­mu­nity of mu­tual sup­port and ad­mi­ra­tion. Into this sur­real world of poverty, refuse, and ex­treme self-re­liance comes Vik Muñiz, a Brazil­ian-born artist liv­ing in New York, who has con­cocted pho­to­graphic por­traits from cot­ton tufts, sugar, dirt, dust, and choco­late sauce. He forged a ser­vice­able reproduction of The Last Sup­per with the last of these in­gre­di­ents.

Muñiz grew up poor in São Paolo and moved to the U.S. in the 1980s, hav­ing re­ceived a fi­nan­cial set­tle­ment af­ter be­ing shot while break­ing up a street fight. In Waste Land, Muñiz is up to some of the same vis­ual tricks he prac­ticed in New York, but he has aban­doned the no­tion of mak­ing money on his lat­est art project and re­turned to Brazil, to give back. He makes friends with the Gra­ma­cho cata­dores, per­suad­ing them to make soc­cer-field-size por­traits of them­selves us­ing the garbage they spend their days sort­ing.

The cata­dores’ in­volve­ment in the project not only changes their lives and their re­la­tion­ship to art, but it also makes them ques­tion whether they should be pick­ing through garbage at all. A young woman named Isis says her work at Muñiz’s makeshift land­fill stu­dio “changed a lot of things. I don’t

see my­self in the trash any­more.” While the trope of a wealthy artist mak­ing art for the down­trod­den is well-worn, this film is un­usu­ally hon­est in re­veal­ing how frus­trat­ing and life-shat­ter­ing it is for the poor Brazil­ian work­ers to get in­volved with Muñiz’s art project.

Be­fore delv­ing into the project, di­rec­tor Lucy Walker (Devil’s Play­ground, Count­down to Zero) wisely spends time let­ting res­i­dents tell their sto­ries about why they chose to work at the dump. Many of the work­ers are re­servedly proud of their oc­cu­pa­tion, which pays lower-mid­dle-class wages and — for women, es­pe­cially — al­lows them to feed their fam­i­lies with­out re­sort­ing to the coun­try’s vice trade. “It beats be­ing a hooker,” says one woman.

The cata­dores don’t shy away from dis­cussing the dangers of the dump. One mother non­cha­lantly re­lates how her daugh­ter’s foot was con­sumed by a fun­gus, while an­other talks about dis­cov­er­ing a baby “that had been thrown away.”

The film is a lov­ing por­trait that qui­etly dis­abuses view­ers of any no­tions they may have about the dig­nity or in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity of garbage pick­ers. For in­stance, Tião Santos, who heads the union of about 2,500 garbage pick­ers, be­gins read­ing Machi­avelli af­ter dry­ing out a soggy copy of The Prince that he picks up while sort­ing through the refuse one day. Then there’s Irma, a highly re­source­ful cook who picks clean pro­duce and fresh meat from in­com­ing truck­loads to feed the itin­er­ant camp. We also get a glimpse of Suelem, an 18-year-old who, un­like most of the res­i­dents, has lived at Jardim Gra­ma­cho since she was a child.

The film be­gins to soar when the ac­tual work of mak­ing art be­gins. It’s clear that Muñiz does not en­vi­sion him­self as some en­light­ened savior of the poor peo­ple in the dump. In­stead, there is a wild sense of ex­change be­tween vi­brant, mod­ern-day street life and cen­turies-long tra­di­tions of high art (Muñiz’s pho­tos of the cata­dores are made to re­sem­ble Jac­ques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat and sev­eral works of Cézanne). It’s no co­in­ci­dence that when Muñiz and Santos visit a London art gallery, they are equally en­chanted by a sam­pling of can­vases by New York street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Muñiz’s pho­tos are blown up on durable paper, cov­er­ing the floor of a large ware­house. The cata­dores then come in with an ar­ray of scav­enged goods rang­ing from re­bar to stuffed an­i­mals to laun­dry ham­pers, art­fully fill­ing in shad­ows, con­tours, and fa­cial lines to cre­ate these epic pieces. It’s a model of col­lab­o­ra­tion that doesn’t need Moby’s glitch-heavy, slow-burn­ing elec­tron­ica score to tug at your heart.

As the movie notes, Jardim Gra­ma­cho is sched­uled to close in 2012, a move that would put its nearly 3,000 work­ers in search of em­ploy­ment. But that’s not a bad thing. Many of the cata­dores were not born and raised in poverty. A dead child, an early divorce, or a pro­longed stint of un­em­ploy­ment put many of these for­merly mid­dle­class Brazil­ians in a pre­car­i­ous place and sent them to the land­fill, where they could lit­er­ally dig their way out of funk. Life there is dirty, hard, and oc­ca­sion­ally bru­tal but for stal­wart men and women look­ing to re­build them­selves, it is also one of the world’s un­like­li­est places to heal.

Garbage imi­tat­ing art imi­tat­ing life: por­trait of garbage picker Irma

An­other man’s trea­sure: The Death of Marat in junk

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