As a young man in the 1980s, Brazilian artist Vik Muniz came to the US by chance before making a name for himself as an artist creating works from found objects. From his studio in Brooklyn, he makes art out of all kinds of materials: chocolate, sugar, toy soldiers and, in his documentary Waste Land, garbage.
Nominated for the best documentary Oscar in 2010, Waste Land follows Muniz as he travels to Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janeiro. At what was once the world’s largest landfill site, he meets the “catadores” or pickers, who work at the dump, sorting through recyclable materials for a living.
Originally from São Paulo, Muniz knows all too well the classism he says is “poisonous” in Brazilian society. He returns to make a difference in a place he came from, for the people on the ground, through the medium that gave him a new life: art.
Black crows circle around the garbage like something out of a horror film as fluorescent-vested pickers climb through the mountain of rubbish; even on screen, the smell is almost palpable. The footage of the landfill and the surrounding slums where people live is bleak. Described as like a “plate of Jell-O”, the dump collapses in places with the weight of the garbage, a steady flow poured off the backs of trucks.
Piece by piece, pickers load garbage in large plastic barrels, sorting through plastics and removing 200 tonnes of material each day. They are vital to the life cycle of the site, making room for more rubbish.
Armed with a camera and an eye for the perfect shot, Muniz starts to sift through landfill to find human stories. The pickers we meet are jovial, despite their accounts of broken families or broken dreams (not to mention the pittance they make each day from collecting recyclable waste). But it is those emotions that Muniz wants to highlight – not the shoe or the stuffed toy in the trash.
For his subjects – young mothers, those who have been pickers for 30 years, and the president of the association of garbage pickers, Tiaõ – his world offers a stark contrast, but also an opportunity.
In a studio space nearby, Muniz’s photos are projected on to the floor and each portrait is assembled by a group of pickers. One by one, old shoes, yoghurt containers and car tyres make up the scenes of Gramacho. Sand is dusted around pieces of metal to fill in the contours of someone’s face; bottle-tops are placed in rows to create the line of an arm or the shape of an eye.
When the very same piece of plastic they extracted from the dump is used to create something beautiful, the pickers begin to see their day-to-day work as more than just trash. These people have heartbreaking stories, but their joy at being able to do something creative supplants their heartache.
You can see the same feeling radiating off Muniz as he connects with those in Rio he will come to call friends, grapples with whether their lives will change as a result of the project (and the proceeds they earn) and reminisces about his own beginnings. When the work is complete, emotions run high as the pickers see themselves on the wall of an art gallery, with the attention of the international press.
Jardim Gramacho has since closed, having been decommissioned in 2012 in an effort to reduce pollution after toxic waste started to affect the neighbouring Guanabara Bay. It is now a thriving mangrove ecosystem.
While the film is a comment on materialism and excess, Waste Land is first and foremost a moving portrait of the power of art. Muniz describes the pickers as having an “appetite for life”. In the end it was that hunger, combined with Muniz’s belief in them, that brought the pickers of Gramacho a new one.
Waste Land is streaming on Prime Video. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here