Blame it on Rio
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