“Waste Land” depicts the life of Brazilian landfill workers and their experiences and observations on the garbage in which they work.
Vic Muniz is a New York-based artist most famous for his works that involve objects people don’t consider art: chocolate, glass, plastics, jelly, sand and drywall, just to name a few. Born in the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo, he utilized art as a way to escape from abject poverty. He begins the “Waste Land” with two simple questions: can art change people? And what happens when it does?
“Waste Land” is a documentary that chronicles his experience spending two years in the world’s largest landfill, Jardim Gramacho, working alongside the catadores (pickers) who make their living picking through garbage to collect recyclables for resale. Upon his arrival, he’s told that “this is where everything that’s not good goes, including the people.” His project becomes one of telling their stories while simultaneously featuring them in works of art made from the refuse in which they spend their lives.
The pickers all work in a cooperative union, led by Tiao Dos Santos. He’s a man who dreamed of improving life for his community. Most pickers live in the favelas (slums) that surround the landfill on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. It’s a filthy job working in the landfill, but the pickers Muniz profiles in the film all like their work. The vice president of the pickers’ union proudly tells Muniz that he works so his daughter can become a doctor. Another woman tells Muniz that it’s a dirty job but clean money, unlike so many jobs for the urban poor in Brazil. Her friend’s motto, which she proudly proclaims to Muniz, is “get your hands dirty working so the money you earn is clean.”
Throughout the film, we see how dedicated of a community the pickers are to each other and their families. One girl is 18-years-old. She’s worked since the age of seven. Her ex-husband is a drug dealer, and her kids live in another favela, but she gets up daily at dawn to make sure they have a better life. She recalls the time she found a dead baby amongst the trash in the landfill. She doesn’t want her kids to end up like that. Another girl Muniz profiles had the misfortune of finding her own infant among the waste at Jardim Gramacho. She had left him at the hospital while she went to work when he was sick. The next day, she found him wrapped in plastic under a sink among the refuse. She uses the experience as fuel to make sure her other son can live a life away from the landfill.
The president of the pickers’ union recalls a time one of the many trucks that offloads rubbish in Gramacho inadvertently crushed his arms while he was working. Over 20 pickers banded together to donate blood at the local hospital so Tiao didn’t die. A bonus? The hospital filled its capacity of blood donations for the whole year in 24 hours because of the catadores.
An interesting claim the pickers make is that no matter who you are, your trash says a lot about you. They can predict somebody’s wealth simply by the looks of their garbage. From the largest mansion to the tiniest favela, every person creates refuse. And most people don’t ever think twice about where it goes.
Muniz enlists several pickers to help him make art out of the garbage. The art pieces are all outlines or silhouettes of the catadores, so they have a vested interest in making them look good. Tiao goes to London with Muniz and watches the piece featuring himself sell for $50,000.
The money Muniz made by selling the art that featured several of the pickers goes to the pickers’ union to fund educational efforts in their community. All of the award money from the accolades the film received also went towards the pickers and their community.
“Waste Land” has a distinctly human feel. It profiles people who have so little material wealth but who have lived such rich lives. Throughout the film we’re reminded there is no required annual income to have dreams.
Although the pickers make $25/day, they believe they live better than most. The film is anything but a wasteland of hope.